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Welcome to the history of Civilization, a series that has been keeping us up until silly o'clock in the morning since the release of Sid Meier's original game in September 1991. Civ turns all of human history into a playground that you can exploit, turn by turn, to bring your chosen nation to glory. It's a fascinating series because it has been interpreted by a new lead designer in each iteration, including Alpha Centauri's Brian Reynolds, Mohawk Games' Soren Johnson, and of course Sid Meier himself. In the following pages we talk to all of them about how the series has evolved from Civilization through to Civilization VI.
"We were young, and we had no fear"
In 1991, MicroProse launched Sid Meier’s Civilization, a game that would define turn-based strategy for over two decades, and give birth to a genre that eventually became known as 4X: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. You probably know someone who has been struck down by One More Turn Syndrome, shackled to their PC at 3am. Maybe it’s you. Meier had no idea what he was starting.
Meier and Bruce Shelley had finished Railroad Tycoon and were looking for another project. They wanted to expand on some of the ideas behind their last game, and Meier had been intrigued by the exploration system found in Empire, the turn-based wargame. It started by giving players a limited view of the world, but that viewpoint gradually unfurled as the world was explored.
“Railroad Tycoon had this sense of being a large-scale game,” Meier recalls. “But we were bold and wondered what’s a bigger, more epic thing we can do? Well, how about the history of civilisation? We were young, and we had no fear.”
It was easier to be fearless then. “The expectations in terms of graphics and team size were different in those days. We did the first half of the work on Civ with just Bruce and I, so we could try things with less risk. It was definitely not something we knew was going to work, but it looked like it would be fun to try.”
While other strategy games were offering up cities or companies as playgrounds, Meier did worry that what they were creating was going to be too much. Too daunting. How do you make a game that spans human history? To start with, they said no to hexes, which wouldn’t make it into the series until Civilization V.
“One of the reasons we used squares for mapping was we thought hexes were too geeky. We went with squares to make things accessible.”
Making Civilization turn-based was an accessibility decision, too. Meier considered creating an RTS, but after testing it, he realised that it didn’t give players enough time to get to grips with its myriad systems. “Development is a journey in itself, and it could have easily gone in different directions. There were a number of things we considered that we didn’t end up doing. Real-time is one of them. I think it’s great to look at Age of Empires, for example, because that’s how the game would have probably progressed if we’d continued down that route.”
Despite being a game of conquest, there’s always been a thread of optimism running through the series, and it’s not an accident. It was part of MicroProse’s philosophy. It wasn’t all murder and land-grabbing. “It revolved around what’s the most fun. We were criticised for not including slavery in both Civ and Pirates, for instance, but those were decisions based on what makes a satisfying and pleasant experience for the players.”
Everyone who’s played Civ knows that Montezuma’s a dick, and for each leader, there are personality traits attributed to them. But while later iterations emphasised that, those AI personalities were basic in the first game. “Players would read more into the game then what was there in some cases,” Meier laughs.
Some leaders might be more aggressive than others, and they were affected by player interactions, but it wasn’t quite as elaborate as the stories told by players implied. It helps, Meier thinks, that each leader and civilisation was recognisable. Players knew what to expect.
“One of the reasons Civ was successful was it tapped into things you already knew. You can enter into this world which you already know. You might know Napoleon, and Gandhi has a clear personality; these are leaders who you’ve probably heard of and already associate a personality or feeling with.”
That success wasn’t a given, though, and Meier only realised quite how special Civilization was after seeing other people playing it. “As other people played it in the company, we’d hear, ‘Just one more turn,’ and, ‘I can’t stop playing.’ Whether the world was ready for it or not, we weren’t sure, but as the game launched and we started to get feedback, it gained momentum. We sensed that something unique was happening.
“Good thing we left room for five more iterations.”
An empire built on word of mouth.
Brian Reynolds remembers when Sid Meier gave him a copy of Civilization. “I played until 2am,” he admits. “It combined the city, units and ‘one more turn’ of Empire with the experience of Civilization the board game. Avalon Hill games were the gold standard, and I didn’t realise computer games could do that.” He was hooked.
He’d been working on adventure games, trying to compete with Sierra, but it wasn’t working out and everyone was worried about their jobs. So he started developing a prototype—a game about discovery and exploration. He showed it to Meier, and a week later he’d been moved to a new department to commence work on what would become known as Colonization.
Then SimCity 2000 came out. Its predecessor had been one of Civilization’s influences, but SimCity 2000 offered up proof that iterative sequels could work, inspiring MicroProse once again. At the same time, Reynolds was moving across the Atlantic with his wife. “I moved to North Yorkshire with a PC and a mandate to make a new game: Civilization 2000.” The three zeroes would eventually be sliced off.
In a new country, left to his own devices, Reynolds found himself tasked with an intimidating job. “Nobody had ever done a sequel to Civilisation or even another MicroProse game before. How do you make a sequel to a game that covered all of human history?” Luckily, he had a long list of desired features from players, who had taken to Usenet groups to tell MicroProse what they wanted to see. These ideas, coupled with Reynolds’ own, ran the gamut from alliances to handy notifications that your enemy had started work on one of the Wonders of the World. There was the all-new tech tree, as well, which had to be built from the ground up.
“It all started to feel really fresh, but for reasons you couldn’t always put your finger on. They were subtle. But the executives didn’t understand. They just thought it was Civ, but for Windows.” That didn’t mean the fact that it was being designed to run on Windows 95 wasn’t important. “We were perfectly placed with the launch of Windows 95 to be successful. It was probably the first triple-A game that could run on the operating system, and we really leaned into it.” This allowed Reynolds to play around with different screens, making the UI modular, taking advantage of the OS’s strengths.
The original Civilization made it so that there was more than one way to win the game, but with Civ II, Reynolds wanted to double down on peaceful solutions. So there was the aforementioned alliance system, while peace treaties would force the other civilisation to remove its units from your areas.
“We did a lot of work on diplomatic AI in Civilization II,” Reynolds stresses. “It actually quadrupled the amount of code we had to write.” These changes to diplomacy also served as the beginning of the national border system that would see use in future Civs, as well as Alpha Centauri, which Reynolds also designed.
Despite this focus, conquest wasn’t forgotten. Indeed, it was dramatically enhanced, thanks to unit hit points. The result was considerably more tactical when compared to Civilization’s basic combat. It also made the era units were from matter more. Reynolds wanted to get rid of those moments where a phalanx could stand up to a battleship.
“It was a long journey, making it more tactical,” Reynolds recollects. Master of Magic was a source of inspiration, but he still didn’t find the combat to be much fun. “There was talk of Sid working on that side of the game, but it didn’t happen. I’d already coded the idea of hit points, getting ready for what I thought was coming, and Sid was like, ‘Yeah, my prototype isn’t as fun as that,’ so I carried on.”
In 1993, MicroProse was sold to Spectrum Holobyte. There’d always been issues with the business side of MicroProse not understanding Civilization II. It was more invested in the multiplayer remake of the first game. This wasn’t helped by the fact that multiplayer wasn’t on the cards for the sequel. “I put a good amount of time into multiplayer logic for Civilisation II, but by 1995, there was no way we were going to get it in.” After the acquisition, things seemed to get worse.
“When they took over, they didn’t have confidence in the game, so they did very little marketing for it. In the end, word of mouth saved it.” The publisher estimated poor sales. By the time Reynolds left the company, it had sold 2.5 million. “It established that Civ was the type of game that could support sequels. Civ III was definitely going to happen.”
The series returns home to its creators.
With the unexpected success of Civilization II, another sequel was inevitable, though not before some litigation over naming rights and the launch of Activision’s Civilization: Call to Power series. After suits and countersuits, the licence eventually ended up with Hasbro, and by 2001 the company had been acquired by Infogrames. Firaxis, which was founded by Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds and Jeff Briggs in 1996, could finally work on the next game.
And, once again, the question became: what could possibly be added to such a huge thing? “Sid and I used to joke with each other that after designing Civilization, what else could you do?” Jeff Briggs recollects. “The scope of the game spans all of human history from the agricultural revolution to the present, so we already had everything that any other game could have.”
Luckily, Briggs had been thinking about a new version of Civilization ever since Civilization II had been released in 1996. A lot of the experimentation had already taken place in his head. It was also around that time that he started thinking in terms of thirds. One third the same, one third new and one third improved. This, he says, helped guide them through the experimentation.
Civilization has a tradition of having a different lead designer for each entry in the series, but this started out as a coincidence. With the original Civilization, Meier felt he had poured everything into that game, so Brian Reynolds took over. The idea was for him to lead development on Civilization III, as well. “We originally planned for Brian to lead the development and design of Civ III, but he decided to start Big Huge Games instead and left Firaxis before development really got started. So I was left as the default designer—exciting and intimidating. Luckily, I had a list of features that I wanted to integrate into the game already.”
One of those features was civilisations that had unique hooks which went beyond aesthetics. In Colonization, which Briggs worked on with Reynolds, Meier and Doug Kaufman, each faction had a sort of starting ‘power’, and he wanted to tap into that. “I looked at the time in history that each of the civs had achieved some level of dominance and tried to identify units and capabilities that would signify that moment in their history. This meant that a civ would have a slight advantage during their historical prime time and shape the player’s strategy to some extent.”
Briggs wanted to expand the game to include elements that weren’t 4X concerns. He considered civilisation as not just domination on a military and control basis. Thus, culture was introduced, making border expansion a function of shared cultural experiences. Systems for ‘Great People’ were also designed, along with works of art, music and architecture, but many of them would be dropped before development concluded due to resource and time constraints. What didn’t make it, however, found life in later games.
The constraints did mean that the multiplayer side of things wasn’t ready for launch, unfortunately. If they’d waited, the game would have been delayed by a year. But Briggs doesn’t recall any serious issues or obstacles that impeded development, and with the hiring of eventual Civilization IV designer Soren Johnson, more work could be done.
He does wish he’d removed the corruption system, however, which created an obstacle when it came to making large empires with cities spread out across great distances. “Corruption and waste had been factors in Civ and in Civ II as well. I wish I had removed it from Civ III altogether. To be honest, I don’t recall it ever coming up during development as a problem. I think we all just accepted it as a part of the system and we were a little afraid to mess with it. Oops.”
While Civilization III proved to be one of the more divisive games among veteran players, it was another success for the series. Briggs thinks that there’s something fundamental about the franchise that keeps people coming back.
“It is the go-to game for history-of- the-world games. Several others have tried to steal this mantle but they’ve usually tried to ‘improve it’ in ways that go against the simple elegance of Sid’s original turn-based seeding of future events system. Improving graphics, adding new systems, expanding the definition of the game to include more and more elements of human history—all of this has kept it fresh.”
The next generation of Civilization.
After cutting his teeth on Civilization III, Soren Johnson became the next torchbearer. It was the first in a new generation of Civilizations, built with a new 3D engine, accessible modding and multiplayer. And when it came to deciding what shape it would take, Johnson wasn’t going to give any feature a free pass.
“One thing I had a strong conviction about was that we weren’t going to do anything by default,” Johnson explains. “We weren’t going to adopt anything from the previous games by default. It’s not necessarily the most high-minded concept, but it meant that I was going to start from scratch and re-evaluate everything.”
He wanted to place the focus on the big picture, not the tiny details, removing things like corruption and introducing religion. From other games came ideas like unit upgrades. Johnson had played Alpha Centauri, and was inspired by the armoury system. The Civilization IV version is simpler, but keeps the essence, the important decisions and different paths. This philosophy is also echoed in how Johnson approached the development of civilisations.
“I felt like the previous games didn’t offer a lot of interesting choices about how you could develop terrain and manage citizens. In previous games it was pretty sparse, basically mines and farms. I wanted people—I think this has become a theme for the way I make games, and you can see it in Offworld Trading Company—to have a reason to play differently each time they started a new game.”
The map became littered with resources that ranged from cotton to iron, luxury and strategic goods that could be harvested by placing the appropriate building on them. But many of these resources were locked behind era-specific technologies, meaning when and if the player got access was largely up to them.
For all the new features, Civilization IV’s most dramatic changes were broader in scope. “There were a lot of things that were really development and productionstyle innovations or priorities,” Johnson recalls. And that included multiplayer. “It’s no secret that Civ has had a problematic history with multiplayer. One of the defining features of Civ IV is we also built it, initially, as a multiplayer game, not as a singleplayer game. So we knew that every system worked in multiplayer.
“We were playing multiplayer games during the first two or three months of development,” Johnson continues. “They were rudimentary, but you don’t really need a lot of mechanics to have a fun experience with other people. We actually made a lot of progress just by being able to base it off these play sessions we had every week. It was a revelation.”
There was a 3D engine to play with as well—a first for the series. It represented a huge graphical leap, but while the upgrade was a welcome one, it was the enhanced legibility that made all the difference when it came to navigating the map. It was easier to understand what you were looking at, be it a city or a piece of terrain, and what was happening there. Accompanying this was a slight change in perspective, too. “
It was actually a big fight between me and the artists for how the grid system would work. The 3D system in Civ IV is like a chessboard. It’s straight ahead. Artists hated that. Even though it was 3D, they still wanted that diagonal board, and I’ve always felt that it makes the distance between tiles confusing. If you move two tiles east to west versus two tiles north to south, you literally move twice as far, so it really obfuscates how close things are on the map.”
The changes to the map weren’t kept in its successor, Civilization V, which made the move to hexes. Johnson’s a bit wistful about that. “We were a bit afraid of hexes at the time.” But many features developed or established in Civilization IV have continued through the last two games.
“If none of this had happened, Civilization would still be a landmark title. If Civ II had flopped, Civ I would still be important. But I feel like the franchise begins with Civ IV because the blueprint for how to keep iterating sort of starts there. There’s a path that’s been followed by Civ V and Civ VI, in terms of the amount of stuff you add to the game, how you manage things and the expansion format.”
Halfway through development, the game was dropped by its publisher and sold to Take-Two. Yet Johnson remained confident. “I saw so many things that I thought needed to be improved from Civ III.” That confidence paid off for the team, and Civilization IV went on to become a series favourite. It even managed to be the first game to win a Grammy, thanks to Christopher Tin’s stirring Baba Yetu theme.
Squares are dead! Long live hexes!
A storm was brewing at Firaxis, and it was undeniably hexshaped. Since 1991, the series had used square grids, while more and more 4X and wargames gravitated towards the sexy angles of the hexagon. As a fan of games like Panzer General, new lead designer Jon Shafer decided to introduce Civilization and its many adherents to the joy of hex.
Development started in early 2007. Shafer was 21, and he wanted to do something different. “Civilization IV was such a good game, so we wanted to put a different spin on things. We acknowledged that it was going to be controversial, not everyone was going to like what we did, but we made a conscious effort to push things in a different direction.”
What could be more controversial than killing squares? A lot of other things, it turns out. Surprising to Shafer, getting people to be open to it wasn’t all that difficult. He’d had the idea, and remembers suggesting it off the cuff, but never meant it seriously. Then, in a design meeting, someone else threw the idea out there. Sid Meier was there, and his opinion about hexes had changed over the years. He thought it was a good idea. So did the artists. And the engineers.
It was easier to do since, like Civilization IV, the fifth iteration also used a new engine, built from scratch. It also allowed the art team to elevate the series’ aesthetic. “It broke a lot of boundaries in a lot of ways. It certainly had higher system requirements than some people were accustomed to with Civilization, but overall it was something that worked out in the end.”
In any other Civilization, the hexes might have been the headline attraction, but Schafer wasn’t joking about wanting to make big, potentially controversial changes. Stacks of doom were gone. No more could conquerors cram armies into a single tile. Instead, each unit needed its own tile, pushing things like unit placement and logistics to the forefront. It was one of the biggest changes to combat in the series’ long history. Shafer is unexpectedly ambivalent about it now.
“The idea was to add more depth to the combat system. Lots of different systems had been tried, and none of them worked very well. But I don’t think the one-unit-per-tile system works very well, either, though it’s probably funny hearing me say that. It was an experiment, and it’s something that’s changed the series. A stack model is probably better, however; it’s more suited to a game of Civilization’s scope.”
Despite this, the unstacking has continued in Civilization VI, and though he doesn’t think it works as well as it could, Shafer still believes that Civilization V’s combat is more interesting than it was in previous games. It gives more prominence to the map. You want to put archers on hills, hide warriors behind forests and generally pay more attention to the environment. And maps, I have learned, are one of Shafer’s passions.
“There are very few designers who love maps as much as me. I want to put as much as I can on the map, utilise that map, utilise random maps, procedural generation,” Shafer starts to lose himself in a list of the map’s potential. He wants to use it to steer the game and highlight things that players might want to do, or explore, and in Civilization V, the result is a world that’s full of detail.
“This was something that was heavily emphasised and contributed by the art team. Our art lead, Dorian Newcomb, one of his bullet points on the art was ‘a living world’. That also fed into the design side because he was one of the first members of the team, and he said, ‘These are the pillars that we’re looking at on the art side.’ It made sense, so I thought maybe we could try to do more here.”
In hindsight, Shafer admits that there are some things he would do differently, and he has new ideas about how to bring strategy maps to life more, and what can be done with unit stacking. But he doesn’t dwell, and he certainly doesn’t regret the experiments and changes.
“The only way I know how to do things is say, ‘What’s the craziest thing we can pull off here?’ Not everybody is going to like that approach. But there are plenty of Civ games, and there will be more in the future I’m sure, so people will have a chance to see many iterations.”
Letting it all hang out.
As soon as work wrapped up on Civilization V’s final expansion, Brave New World, the design team had already moved onto Civilization VI. And with Ed Beach leading development on both, it’s not surprising that the pair share a lot of similarities, with the latter fleshing ideas introduced in the expansion and Civilization V’s other pieces of DLC.
Ever since it appeared in the third game, culture has evolved into one of the key pillars of the Civilization series, and for Beach it was a priority in Brave New World, which saw the introduction of the tourism system. It became a priority once again in Civilization VI, culminating in a new progression system that put culture on the same level as science, complete with its own tree, but for civics rather than technology.
“I’m a huge fan of world travel and spending time in other cultures,” Beach explains. “Every time I go to major European capitals, for example, all those opportunities to see the art that’s been collected, the museums, it’s a really interesting insight into what civilisations value and want to preserve. So I like to think about what that tells me about how civilisations should interact with each other, especially in the late game, when it’s not all about conquest.”
This culture focus, and particularly the civics tree, greatly expanded how much you could do in the game without cracking skulls and smashing down city walls, but it also continued the philosophy of optimism and positive forward momentum that Meier espoused all the way back in the very first game. And as Beach notes, along with several of his fellow lead designers, you can still trace a lot back to the original Civilization, decades later.
Civilization VI was unusual in that, before development had even started, the team not only had a clear idea of several systems that they wanted to implement, they even knew that they worked. A great deal of the experimentation happened earlier in the process. You can see the origins of the district system, for instance, in 2010 with Civilization V’s Spain and Inca scenario pack, but placing buildings outside of cities was suggested as far back as the beginnings of the core game.
“The earliest notion of unstacking cities was before the Civ V base game even shipped. We were wondering how the wonders were going to be visualised, and there was a push internally from a team to move them outside cities, making them seem powerful and magnificent. There were a number of people that tried to get Jon Shafer to do it, but I think he made the right call then. We had a lot on our plate already for Civ V, with the tactical combat and moving to one unit per tile.”
It was an idea that wormed its way into the minds of Beach and his team, however, inspiring the occasional special building like the Incan terrace farms and the Polynesian statues, which needed to be constructed on specific tiles, such as mountains and coastlines, respectively. When Beach started work on Civilization VI, it was the first thing that the team got working. He now considers it the game’s groundbreaking achievement, transforming cities into these sprawling metropolises that expand across the land through specialised districts.
“I’m a board game designer on the side,” Beach explains, “and there are a lot of board games that I like that are very focused on positional play and using or creating the map as you’re playing through it. That was the big stamp that we put on Civilisation VI, trying to make sure that you take advantage of the map, not just as this place you have to explore early in the game, but by putting your mark on the map, tile by tile. That’s why we unstacked the cities and included adjacency bonuses and districts.”
Unlike the other entries in this history of the series, Civilization VI isn’t finished yet. The game launched in 2016, and new civilisations and systemic changes are still being planned by Beach and his team. Religion, diplomacy and espionage will all be getting a new look before he’s done.
“There are six of us who are working actively in either game design or AI development, and I remind the team all the time that this is a marathon and not a sprint,” Beach says. “I’ve only run one marathon myself, so I only have a little bit of an idea of what miles 15 or 16 of a marathon are like, but that’s where I feel we are now. We’ve still got quite a way to go.”
But then Civilization is never really finished. Since the first game appeared way back in 1991, hardly any time has gone by where a new entry wasn’t being developed, or at the very least a prototype or piece of DLC. As familiar as it is, Civilization is always moving forward.
You might well cheer the demise of GameSpy Technologies, but an awful lot of games will lose official online multiplayer support when the service shuts down on May 31. Publishers scour the battlefield running triage measuring pulses peeling eyelids shining lights flexing smashed bones jabbing fingers in wounds licking blood. “We’ve got a live one here!” they cry occasionally and haul the game up on their shoulder, but all too often stand up, brush themselves down, then step over the grasping bloodied hand as they quietly walk away.