Sid Meier's Civilization V

A game review by Bobulous.

New to Sid Meier's Civilization?

If you've never played one of the previous four in the Civilization series of games, here's a summary of what you've been missing.

A high-level overview of cities and city-states.
A swathe of cities now in the hands of Elizabeth I.

Based on a board game, the first Civilization computer game was released in 1991 and, despite the graphics being improved and several features being tweaked over the years, Civilization always has been a turn-based, seen-from-above game all about forging an empire. You found cities and use the resources surrounding each city to produce civic improvements, wonders of the world, trade routes, and scientific discoveries. Perhaps most importantly you also produce military units to protect your empire from the other civilizations jealously vying for the very same land, resources and world wonders. Each scientific discovery you make allows new city improvements, military units and wonders of the world to be built.

To make things challenging, you need to take into account the amount of gold your cities are raising and spending, the rate and order of scientific discovery, the number of happy and unhappy citizens, and the mood of the leaders of rival civilizations. Markets and trade routes can boost gold income in a city; educational facilities can boost scientific progress; entertainment venues can keep happiness on the right side of zero; cultural structures can sway outsiders to join your society; and world wonders can improve one or more of these concerns substantially. However, only one civilization can ever build each wonder of the world so you need to be quick to finish a wonder which is important to your strategy, otherwise you will miss out. Of course, if you do finish a world wonder that your aggressive neighbour was hoping to complete, or if your neighbour is simply looking to expand, you might suddenly find yourself at war, and then your quantity and choice of military units and improvements will be the only thing that can save you.

Changes in Civilization V

Civilization V differs most fundamentally from its predecessors in two ways. First, the square tiles that previously made up the world have been replaced with hexagonal tiles in Civ 5. This means that tiles radiate out from a city in a much more circular way, and rivers, coastlines and borders that follow tile edges have a natural meander, which is quite pleasing.

The second major change is probably more significant: only one military unit can occupy each tile. Gone are the days of stacking multiple units into an 'army' on the same tile. Civ 5 also introduces ranged units such as archers which can fire at enemy targets more than one tile away. These ranged units are weaker, so they need to be kept at the back of an assault, shielded from close combat by stronger units such as swordsmen. As the game progresses, ranged units advance to include artillery which can fire at targets three tiles away, forcing your enemy to respond in kind, or venture out of their defensive positions to deal with your artillery.

Military might is but one consideration in Civilization. Also new to the mix are city-states and social policies. City-states are one-city nations which cannot win the game, but which can ally or war with the fully-fledged civilizations. The easiest way to gain the support of city-states is by throwing money at them, or by eradicating nearby barbarians. Alliances are valuable because allied city-states provide their sole ally with military units, food, or culture, plus they reveal the map within and around their territory. But your influence over a city-state decreases with time, so you have to keep throwing money their way to keep them on side. Another important reason to care about city-states is that if a civilization builds the United Nations (a late-game wonder of the world), each city-state votes for its ally, and if any civilization gets a majority of votes they win the game with a Diplomatic Victory.

The eight social policies trees, several of which have been completely unlocked.
The Social Policies screen.

Social policies are a twist on the old government modes of previous versions of Civilization. Instead of picking a single government mode, Civilization V has ten social policy trees, each containing five social policies, and these policies have effects which stack on top of each other. Each tree has to be unlocked using culture points built up by your cities, and then each policy in an unlocked tree can also be unlocked. The trees are themed to suit different strategies, one containing policies which boost your military effectiveness, another increasing your cultural output, another aiding in science, another giving you the edge when trying to forge and maintain city-state alliances, and so on. There are a few restrictions on how many of these policy trees can be active at the same time, for instance the Piety (cultural) and Rationalism (science) trees can't be active simultaneously.

And, of course, other game details have been tweaked and tilled. Civ 5 fields a different set of civilizations and leaders, military units and world wonders to the previous incarnations. The religion, espionage and corporation features of Civ 4 are nowhere to be found, though the excellent Civ 3 concept of cultural borders remains. And cities now defend themselves even without a formal military unit garrisoned in the city.

Playing Civilization V

As always, a game of Civilization V begins with a Settler unit and a Warrior unit. Starting out with knowledge only of a tiny patch of the world, you have to quickly decide where to settle your capital city. The ideal spot for a city will be on a hill (for defensive bonus) next to a river (extra gold production and defensive bonus) by the coast (to allow production of naval units), surrounded by bonus resources (which improve food and production yield) such as cattle, sheep, deer, wheat and stone, and by luxury resources (which increase happiness) such as gold, pearls, incense and dyes, and within easy reach of marble (which speeds production of world wonders). But taking too long to move your Settler unit into a good position can cost you, as your rival civilizations will probably have founded their capital city within the first turn or two.

Once you've founded your capital city, you choose which ancient era technology to research. The technology tree in Civilization V contains 74 technologies, structured so that each technology can only be researched once you've completed one or more prerequisite technologies. When you first begin in the ancient era you have only knowledge of Agriculture, which means your research choices are limited to: Pottery, Animal Husbandry, Archery, and Mining. Each of these comes with a different benefit, and leads to different technologies further along the technology tree. For instance, on completing research into Pottery your cities can build a Granary improvement which boosts population growth by increasing the amount of food in the city, and you can then choose to research Sailing, Calendar or Writing, all vital to cultivating well-fed, cultured, learned cities. On the other hand, completing Animal Husbandry reveals the location of the first strategic resource in the game: horses. It is also a prerequisite to researching The Wheel and later Horseback Riding, all of which allows you to produce the Horseman military unit, vital for mounting an early assault on a rival civilization. So the order in which you discover technologies needs to be matched to the strategy you hope to follow.

Once you've chosen what to research first, you also need to decide what to produce in your city. At first, having so little in the way of scientific knowledge, your options are limited. The only building you can construct is a Monument, which will boost the cultural output of the city (which will increase the rate at which your city expands its cultural borders and also help you towards unlocking social policies more quickly). Alternatively you can produce a Scout unit, able to quickly move around the map and chart terrain, meet neighbouring city-states and civilizations, and locate barbarian encampments. Or a Worker unit, able to improve terrain within the cultural borders around your city, boosting the yield of food, gold or productivity. Or a Settler unit with which you can found another city. Or another Warrior unit to defend your city or hunt barbarians.

The game rapidly progresses, and before you know it you're completing wonders of the world, furnishing your cities with cultural and educational improvements, and joining your cities by road to create trade routes. Alternatively you're building superior military units and marching on your nearest neighbour's city, slaying their defending units, battering their city defences, and capturing the wonders of the world that they have helpfully built for your taking.

City improvement

A painting of the Stonehenge wonder of the world at night, under the stars.
Being first to complete Stonehenge gives a strong boost to early cultural output.

If you intend to hunker down in your cities and make them the best they can be, then cultural borders are of vital importance. The cultural borders around each of your cities define what terrain belongs to your civilization. Your cities' citizens can only work on territory within your cultural borders, and your military units cannot enter the territory of another civilization without either agreeing to an open borders treaty or declaring war on that civilization. So if the quality of your cities is important, then expanding your cultural borders quickly is important, and the speed of this is determined by the cultural output of each city. You can increase the amount of culture produced in a city by constructing certain structures or world wonders. Alternatively you can simply pay gold coins to add unclaimed tiles to your territory.

Once your cultural border meets the cultural border of another civilization, there's only one easy way to gain any of their territory: the culture bomb. Using a Great Artist (occasionally produced by cities with certain world wonders) you can trigger a culture bomb (think of it as laying on a huge music/sport/comedy festival) on any tile within your territory or any unclaimed tile adjacent to your territory, and then all tiles adjacent to the Great Artist flip allegiance to your civilization, even if they were previously in enemy hands. If you and a rival civilization have two cities close together which are starving each other of resources, triggering a culture bomb will really benefit your city at the expense of the rival city. Be warned, though: this really angers the civilization leader whose territory you have converted, and is a sure way to put thoughts of war into his or her mind.

Military supremacy

Rome's armies surging into Indian territory.
The third time Caesar declared war. He was never able to do so again.

I used to hate combat in previous Civilization games, as the opaque, stacked 'armies' of dozens of different units all on one tile made it very hard work to see what was going on. But, thanks to the new one-military-unit-per-tile rule, Civilization V requires military tactics that feel much more like chess. You manoeuvre for the best position for each unit type, taking into account defensive modifiers provided by different terrain types, and the veteran unit promotions you've given to experienced units. You also need to consider whether it makes sense to take an easy win over a weaker enemy unit, as doing so will move your unit into the tile previously occupied by the vanquished enemy, which may leave your victorious but wounded unit in the firing line of fresh enemies. Horse and tank units can avoid this problem as they have the special ability to move even after attacking, making hit-and-run assaults possible. And ranged units can hide behind strong defenders, pelting distant enemy units without risk to themselves. It all adds up to very satisfying military combat, a comment which I have never made about any previous Civilization game.

Also important to military units is visibility. Most units can see two tiles in all directions across flat terrain, but hills, forests, jungles and mountains all block the view of what lies beyond, unless your unit is on a hill, in which case it can see beyond these blocking terrain types. This means you need to be wary when exploring or marching in hostile territory, as surprises can be just the other side of a forest or hill. It also means that having forest or jungle around your city can limit your ability to use ranged units against invading enemy units. This restriction does not apply to artillery units (which have the Indirect Fire promotion) nor does it apply to your cities' ability to bombard enemy units. Whenever enemy units are within two tiles of a city, that city can bombard one enemy unit per turn, regardless of terrain. This represents angry, fearful citizens fighting against the foreign forces, and this can damage or kill enemy units which fail to move away or crack the city quickly enough. As pleasing as it is to see your cities defend themselves, they won't last long in the face of a serious assault unless you counter the enemy forces with comparable military units, so it does not pay to leave a city without a garrison. Even if you aim for a peaceful victory, you won't stand a chance if you neglect to take the military aspect into account.

Social Policies

Whatever your target method of victory, Civ 5's social policies can really sharpen your strength in a particular direction, and it's always very pleasing to see the "May adopt policy" icon appear to show that you've produced enough culture to pick a new policy. However, the cost per policy increases each time, so you need to make sure your cities contain cultural buildings like monuments, temples, opera houses, museums and world wonders, otherwise the time to the next social policy becomes a costly wait. The cost per policy also jumps by 15% every time you add a new city to your civilization, so there is some incentive to keep your empire small and perfectly maintained. Interestingly, if your military units capture an enemy city, you have the usual option of annexing it (which causes it to become one of your cities), or you can turn the captured city into a puppet, which means that you gain money and science from the city but cannot control what it produces. Puppet cities do not increase the cost of social policies, so you can still expand aggressively without pushing the next social policy beyond easy reach. But bear in mind that puppet cities will not produce their own military units, so your cities proper must fill this need.

Strategic resources

Montezuma of the Aztecs, wearing a tall plumed headdress of iridescent colours.
Meeting rival leaders allows you to trade resources, agree a treaty, or declare war.

As if there wasn't enough to compete for, you also need to do your best to secure strategic resources within your territory. Each type of strategic resource is revealed on the map after you discover certain technologies, and without a surplus of these strategic resources you cannot produce certain military units and city improvements.

For instance, horses are revealed on the map once you discover Animal Husbandry. To secure this strategic resource you need to expand your cultural borders to include one or more tiles with horses, then have a Worker unit build a pasture on that tile. This will give you a certain amount of that resource: if you have four horse available then you can build four Horseman, Knight, Lancer or Cavalry units (some civilizations have unique units which also require the horse resource).

As examples of units and buildings which require the other five strategic resources: to build a Swordsman, Frigate or Catapult you need iron; to build a Factory or an Ironclad you need coal; to build a Battleship, a Fighter or Bomber you need oil; to build Rocket Artillery or a Spaceship Factory you need aluminium; to build a Nuclear Plant, Nuclear Missile or Giant Death Robot (yes, that is the unit's actual name) you need uranium. So many powerful military units and productivity boosting buildings require strategic resources that your rivals will very quickly declare war if they realise the only way they can acquire one of these vital resources is by capturing your territory.

Victory conditions

There are four ways to win a game of Civilization V. The first is the Domination Victory: be the last civilization holding onto its original capital city. This is most easily achieved by playing the aggressor, marching your armies into enemy lands and taking their first cities. However, it is also possible to win a Domination Victory even if you never land a blow, because your rivals might rob each other of their capital cities, leaving you the last man standing.

The Cultural Victory is better suited to a more peaceful strategy: unlock all of the policies in five social policy trees, and then build the Utopia Project in one of your cities. Because unlocking social policies requires cultural output in your cities, this victory requires that you focus on improving cities with cultural buildings and world wonders, and it also favours a small number of cities (not counting puppet cities). Perfect for the defensive player.

The Diplomatic Victory can be won by any player with enough money: secure a majority of votes from city-states once the United Nations wonder of the world has been built by any civilization. You can buy an alliance with any city-state so long as you have enough money, but like an online auction you need to expect that your rivals will also throw money at city-states just before the vote (which occurs ten turns after the United Nations has been built, and then every so many turns until someone wins a majority). It's also worth noting that if a player liberates a city-state which was captured by a rival civilization, that city-state will vote for its most recent liberator no matter what their alliance. The same is true if you liberate a city belonging to an eradicated rival civilization: you bring that civilization back into play, and they will always vote for their most recent liberator. So it doesn't have to be all about the money; it just tends to be.

The Scientific Victory is the hardest to achieve in Civ 5: complete research on everything in the technology tree and build spaceship parts to assemble a project which will take your civilization into space. As science output depends strongly on population size, this victory is suited to a civilization with plenty of large cities equipped with suitable world wonders and all educational buildings available. I tend to find that a Cultural Victory or Diplomatic Victory always become achievable before a Scientific Victory, but that may just be the way I play.

Problems with Civilization V

With such a huge and complex game system and interface, it's not surprising that there are one or two snags. I did intend to simply mention problems in the overall text, but my list of notes became long enough that it's probably easier just to show the list. Note that I'm playing the game a year after its release, and the game has received many update patches in that time, but the following issues remain.

Reliance on the mouse.
For a game that is turn-based rather than realtime, it would have been nice to see a user interface that can be entirely controlled from the keyboard if desired. While there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts for many common actions, too often the only way to proceed is by clicking a button or icon with the mouse. So your trigger finger will begin to ache.
Too many mouse clicks are required.
Almost every turn the game will pop up buttons saying "Choose Production" or "Choose Research" but will not automatically pop up the city production panel, or the scientific research panel, so you have to click the button to bring it up. This is probably done to make the interface feel more free, as you can choose to ignore the button and click on any unit or city or the research status panel in whatever order you see fit, but it does mean that you have to make far more mouse clicks than is really necessary.
Auto-end-turn doesn't wait for city bombard.
To reduce the amount of button clicking, you can tell the game to automatically end your turn when you have given all active units instructions, and all idle cities production orders, and chosen what to research, etc. The problem is that auto-end-turn has bugs, the first being that it does not wait for a city which has the option to bombard an enemy invader. So you need to make sure to use bombard first of all before giving units orders. And if there are no units awaiting orders, you don't get a chance to bombard. This means you very often miss the opportunity to wear down enemy invaders. This bug would be so easy to fix that I don't understand how it's still present.
Auto-end-turn stops you selecting sleeping units.
The second auto-end-turn bug is this: if only one active unit remains to be given instructions, you cannot wake any sleeping units. Attempting to do so simply switches focus back to the last active unit awaiting instructions. This means you cannot, for instance, swap the last active unit with a garrisoned unit in a city, because selecting the garrisoned unit just returns focus to the active unit. This often robs you of the opportunity to organise your forces, and is absolutely maddening when it happens at a critical time.
The Civilopedia could be clearer.
The built-in reference manual, the Civilopedia, is very informative, but could be clearer in some places. And some information doesn't seem to appear anywhere within, though I may just be searching for the wrong terms.
Railroad bonus not always applied.
Once you discover the Railroad technology you can join your cities by railroads instead of roads. Any city connected to your capital city by railroad ought to get a productivity boost of 25%, a significant bonus. But sometimes, even though a railroad route exists between a city and the capital, the bonus is not applied. This is very annoying, and it's not clear what is going on.
Auto-route has problems.
If you instruct a military or civilian unit to travel a long distance, the game will choose a route automatically for them. And this route is usually a stupid one. The game thinks nothing of choosing to send non-naval units into the water, where they are defenceless and often get killed by barbarian galleys. It also doesn't think twice about sending them through the territory of unallied city-states, which is considered trespassing and puts the city-state in a bad mood. These occur even if the unit could have taken a safe route. And asking a Worker unit to automatically build a road from point to point, you're likely to see the worker build through forest, jungle or hills (which incur a movement penalty) even if a flat route is possible with the same length of road. So you usually have to take manual, turn-by-turn control if the result matters to you.
Combat notification is flawed.
Sometimes when you end your turn one of your units will be captured or killed by barbarians or a warring rival, and you won't even be shown the combat that led to this result. Then the game will spend half a minute showing you in clear detail the result of combat between warring rivals or barbarians, even though these battles don't involve you. This might not be so bad if it weren't for the fact you get nothing more than a "Unit was killed" note to tell you that something has happened. It doesn't tell you which of your units has been beaten or by whom. Which can be pretty frustrating.

It's important to note that, while these quirks/bugs are disappointing, they don't stop the game being hugely playable in general, and the interface is very effective overall.

Evaluating Sid Meier's Civilization V

In summary, Civilization V has very nice graphics, a nice background soundtrack that develops unobtrusively as you advance through the ages, a user interface which is clean and mostly intuitive, and superb gameplay.

There are, as mentioned above, a few bugs and quirks that could do with being ironed out, but the overall experience is excellent. If you've been a fan of previous Civilization games, you ought to find many, many hours of enjoyment from Civilization V. And if you've not yet encountered the Civilization series, but you like a strategy game with real complexity, give Civilization V a chance. (Just be sure to see my tip below about how addictive the game is.)

Tips for Civilization V

I'm a long way from being a talented Civilization player, but here are some tips that I've picked up after having played the game for some time:

A view around Nottingham city, showing the resources available from each tile, and what is currently being produced by the city.
The city screen lets you choose which resources to gather from around a city.