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Strategies in Civilization 5

October 10th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 22 Comments · Firaxis, Me

This will probably be my last word on Civ 5 for a while on the blog, but if any of my colleagues want to use this platform to hold forth, I won’t stop them.

I’m working on a short strategy guide on Civ 5, and to be honest it is a bit difficult to write. There is no ideal build order, a lot of the game remains underdocumented, and so many of the strategies depend on which nation you use and when you start planning your strategy.

This is really the first Civ where you need to pick which victory condition you are going for in your opening turns. Once your empire gets larger than say, five cities, a culture victory is almost impossible unless you have some magic luck with being left alone. A domination victory means you either need to play on a Pangaea map or hope there are still capitals left to conquer when you cross the seas – unlikely. You can’t move from a culture to a science victory easily – the latter needs a larger empire. Some nations are better suited to one victory than another.

There was some of this in Civ 4. If you had multiple religions, it made sense to always put your cathedrals in the same three cities and then shoot for those wonders that had culture multipliers (Hermitage, Broadway, Hollywood, Rock & Roll, etc.). But this is an extreme version of that.

As I said on the show two weeks ago, for the first time you cannot measure your general progress by the size of your empire. A small empire might be the best choice if you want that Utopia Project and even there you want to play India probably since it gets no penalty for large cities, but a double penalty for every new one. Infinite City Spam was reduced in Civ 4 by upkeep costs; in Civ 5, happiness is the problem and that keeps you away from the Golden Ages you need to keep things moving efficiently. (I can’t remember a time when Civ was so reliant on the Golden Age concept for victory.)

In some ways, this makes Civ more a series of achievement centered challenges than a game where you adjust your strategy depending on your circumstances. You sit down and say “I will try for the diplomatic victory” (which requires a lot of gold) or “I haven’t tried the Japanese Domination Strategy” yet. My favorite strategy games aren’t like that; they are evolving worlds that force me to change course or take advantage of new opportunities. A weakened enemy is no longer attractive prey if I want to get that culture win. If I had wanted a science win, I would have had to expand early and fast. Without a gold centered strategy, the diplomatic victory is hard to earn.

In multiplayer, I can see how this might be interesting, at least if MP wasn’t so frustrating. Each empire trying to plan out its own strategy while the other players try to subvert those plans. But the AI still plays Civ 5 like Civ 4, preferring to expand at all costs. An India that owns an entire continent will not get anywhere fast because of the happiness penalty.

It’s only been a few weeks and the community forums are still fighting over what the best options are for each nation. There are some ridiculous examples of people finding ways to break the system, but by and large there is still a lot of debate about how to face this new world of Civ.

If I’m missing something, let me know. Because this is a Civ I barely recognize at times.

150 hours played, btw.


22 Comments so far ↓

  • Rorschach

    “Because this is a Civ I barely recognize at times.”

    Is that a bad thing?

  • Troy

    Not at all. I like how different it is in so many ways. I keep playing it and will keep playing it.

    But if certain winning conditions require surrendering the dynamic changing nature of Civ, then I am a little more unsettled.

  • James Allen

    Is it a trend in modern strategy games to have a set strategy before starting a new game? Is this due to an increased focus on multiplayer games, where the likes of SC2 support a single, efficient strategy that is perfected over time?

  • Troy

    RTS skirmish has almost always been about ideal build order and early efficiencies. SC2 is no different in that regard.

    Multiple hour long 4x games are another matter.

  • Brian

    And this is why every game I play becomes a race for a domination victory, that’s the only condition where I find myself having to be proactive and plan. It’s the only thing that keeps be interested. Unless I’m defending myself, the other VCs end up being “build a building, click enter.”

    That isn’t fun for 400 turns. To make matters worse, a cultural victory is only achievable by a few civs. As much as I like that the specializations are important, eliminating a VC for the majority of the civs is a bit silly.

    That said, I will be first in line for the expansion. I like this game a lot but at the moment, I don’t know that it’s deep enough to be played long term.

  • Taylor

    If they are going to make you pick a winning strategy so early, it would be nice to see your starting location before picking a Civ, that way you could make a more informed decision about what to go after. Just a thought.

    I did get a cultural victory as Napoleon this weekend on Prince, but I had to really try for it – no fighting, total appeasement, very few non-culture buildings and wonders. I was really biting my nails there at the end as Nobunaga started making some threatening moves in my direction the final 100 turns or so. Also, having to build the Utopia Project after adopting all of those policies kind of pissed me off – like adding insult to injury.

  • Michael Braly

    CiV strategy only holds up for now if you’re thinking inside of the box, once you begin to push the boundaries of that it starts to come apart. It appears to be a great narrative game, where players can write their own stories, but the balancing needs much more work.

    I Initially had links in here, but I don’t think the commentbox likes that, so I’ll try to explain each technique:

    Infinite City Sprawl (ICS) works again. Since the center city tile yield is so high with certain social policies (particularly the order tree), you can build a size 4 city fed only on maritine food which contributes a net positive to the empire, and is happiness neutral. You spam these cities across the map, and the end result is much higher gold and science production, as well as the ability to slow-build units throughout. The penalty you pay, or course, is the the loss of policies.

    Another player managed to manipulate the puppet state AI to gain a super-early cultural victory by making sure the only techs he had (that his puppets could build) had cultural buildings/bonus. Apparently puppet states don’t count against you for the cost of your next social policy.

  • Josh

    As far as build order goes, I would argue that the first unit to be built from a city straight away is a scout. Claiming the ruins is one thing, but the nice bonus of being the first to meet a city state and getting 30 gold, rather than the standard 15 certainly adds up. Please the usual being able to plan effective city sites, very useful for those leaders in the biased start locations (I think Arabia always starts in desert, right?).

    One habit I find hard to shake is that workers don’t stop city growth, compared to Civ IV. As such, it is probably tempting to get them out fairly quickly and improving the land, especially considering the threat from the AI mounting an early rush is slim at best. Even with raging barbarians enabled, I don’t really have too many fears with my workers, but for obvious reasons, having a warrior around to beat back those black bannered units is a must.

  • Dirk

    It pains me to say this but, for all the lovely and potentially wonderful things with it, I find Civ5 unplayable. The AI is not challenging in single player mode, and my computer locks up whenever I try to play multi-player.

    I suspect this will eventually be an excellent game. But right now it just isn’t “there” yet.

    It is amazing how much this industry has changed over the past 20 years. It used to be the games were shrink-wrapped and could not be patched online. Yet, often the out-of-the-box product was in fact a good game. Legitimately “finished” with some real polish and integrity.

    Now we’re in a moment where most games upon release are simply not “done” properly. We also have the phenomenon of selling discounted beta games, or even free public betas. More often than not this is proving to be a mess as well. One Indie game I bought under these auspices cancelled further development of the game within a month or two of selling a deeply discounted beta. In another case, the potentially interesting Frozen Synapse, there are never players online to play against (at the moment, three including myself).

    This “ship early, ship often” mentality of launching half-baked products that are too often crap is a bad habit adopted from the field of web design, where it is de rigueur to be pushing rolling versions and racing to a half-baked launch as opposed to the currently out-of-vogue “waterfall” and “big bang” approaches. This does not translate as well to computer games, or at least not to highly complex strategic games like those discussed on this site.

    I’m more or less to the point of not wanting to buy a game until the first expansion has been released. If too many consumers start to look at things the way I do it will be a real blow to the business model of these game companies, which need to sell units at launch in order to even get to the point of launching an expansion in the first place.

  • Severian

    I have to agree with some others that, as of now, strategy articles are *almost* pointless. It is just too easy to push around the AI’s every time they start hassling you. I’ve played 2 full games through (one a cultural victory on Prince as Gandhi, and another a space-race victory on King as Darius), and am in love with the UI and many of the mechanics. I truly believe this will be a great game in a few months. But I had to stop playing because I feel that it’s pointless to put so much thought into strategy and decision-making when the AI continues to be boneheaded and let me get away with murder. In my last game, Montezuma had a military advantage over me throughout most of the modern era and should have started attacking me mercilessly once I started my Apollo program. If he had come at me hard, I would have been forced into some very interesting and difficult choices – I was *really* hoping that he would. But, alas, nothing. I launched the shuttle by 2010.

  • Chris Nahr

    ” A domination victory means you either need to play on a Pangaea map or hope there are still capitals left to conquer when you cross the seas – unlikely.”

    I don’t understand this sentence. You win a domination victory if you’re the last player in possession of his original capital. So if other players already lost there’s, that’s actually a good thing — fewer capitals to conquer!

  • Tony M

    I had the opposite reaction. (disclaimer: I haven’t played 150 hours). In the earlier civs I knew before the map even loaded that I would be making a mad land grab as soon as the game started.

    In Civ V I want to examine the map, look at the position of recources and other civs, and THEN decide if I want to play an expansionist or more compact strategy.

  • Neil

    I agree with Tony’s take, but I have to point out that neither situation is desirable. Either way, you are locked into a strategy from the start.

    At least in past Civ games, you had to tailor your ICS to your end goal and intermediate goals created by the AI’s behavior. In Civ V, you pick something at the start and pretty much have to stick with it come hell or high water.

    If Civ V were not called Civ and were put out by a no-name Russian studio, it would have an aggregate review score of 60-65%.

    At this point, I am done with the Civ series. It doesn’t need any more sequels trying to its refine gameplay mechanics, and it is not the type of game where a sequel is justified by a game’s worth of new content.

    When they reboot it as a strategy/RPG hybrid with a somewhat narrower focus (time and geography-wise) and more narrative elements, I’ll buy it again.

  • Steve

    @James Allen: A single, efficient strategy in SC2 only gets you so far. As I grind my way up my SC2 ladder I find that scouting and adapting are making the biggest difference.

    It was a revelation to me the first time I sacrificed all those units and energy to figure out what my opponent was doing, radically changed my plans and won because of it.

    Still haven’t tried Civ V. It looks good to me. So good, in fact, that it’ll probably destroy my life.

  • George Geczy

    “If Civ V were not called Civ and were put out by a no-name Russian studio, it would have an aggregate review score of 60-65%.”

    In a way Civ V is an excellent case study on the relationship between “beloved franchises”, gaming media, fan base, and more. It is also interesting that the demands to get a review out quickly for a big release like this mean that the game features and candy-coating can be “front loaded”, since most reviewers will not play it far enough to see if there are any issues under the surface.

    While true that reviews like Troy’s and Tom Chick do investigate issues like AI and naval landings and such, check out other reviews from the Metacritic list and see how many don’t even mention these points. And did any reviewer play a “huge map” game to its conclusion before posting their review? I doubt it, because people report that the game starts to take unbearably long (3 minutes + on a quad core i7) per turn and then crashes and corrupts its save games before a huge map end can be reached.

    Many review scores seem to be based on the game they “wish” it would be (and that it might be after a year of patches and user mods). But, “it is a beloved franchise with a big ad budget”…

  • rsm

    George: “And did any reviewer play a “huge map” game to its conclusion before posting their review? I doubt it, because people report that the game starts to take unbearably long (3 minutes + on a quad core i7) per turn and then crashes and corrupts its save games before a huge map end can be reached.”

    That iirc is a flat out bug, not like in previous games where it was a massive slowdown due to unit/graphics creep. Richard Bartle noted this problem on his blog, and that one of the main sources of the slowdown was an accumulation of error messages that caused the eventual crash/corruption.

    Anyways, still not buying for another couple of months. Bioware is still the only company I regularly buy games from early in the release cycle. (I don’t play SC, or Blizzard and Bioware would be the only companies).

  • Andrew

    The AI is awful, the countries don’t know when to attack and when to want peace, they attack head on when there would be better options for causing havoc in my country. The trading is awful, it takes 3x as much resources as it should to secure something you want/need. The city states are too ‘greedy’ as far as constantly needing to be placated. The diplomacy is laughable. This game is a joke, whoever designed the AI should be hung. Then shot. Then fired out of a cannon into the sun.

  • vimean

    it is very very good to creat the game like that.these Civilization game serie make people to solve other problem,use their brain,leadership,and there is alot of usefull,in fact,they are good games to play in these world.
    but i suggest that there will be very realistic than that,and use powerfull and very good strategy.
    good luck!

  • Jeremiah

    I must say that I am disappointed in the lack of AI refinement, the AI is not any better, if not worse, than its predecessor. Also they still haven’t figured out there needs to be some sort of battle.net for Civ to host multilayer games and leagues. I see the game really as a small UI and government option expansion to Civ4, with a slightly worse AI. I liked Civ4 overall and will continue to play Civ5 until someone else does a better job.

  • Jason

    Sorry, but the second I heard “America The Beautiful” in the beginning of the American Campaign, I fell in love with this franchise all over again!

    I can’t wait for the updates. IMO, out of the box, this game is solid that I will admit needs a few tweaks and upgrades here and there. For one, the AI needs to be a little more consistent when it comes to turning coat for or against me. Or the lack of accomplishment when building a wonder. Just small petty stuff. Otherwise, this version is by far my CIV fav.


  • Stef

    Ohh… Civilization IV took me so many hours, that I really should not start to play this one, lol

  • CTEd

    Civ 3 was the best in the series, it’s been down hill since. Being a fan of a domination victory I have found Civ 4 lacking and Civ 5 unplayable, even on marathon. I still can’t get decent armies in the field before I have researched new techs with new weapons.

    It doesn’t seem like the cities build fast enough or the workers improve fast enough compared to how fast the techs research. I’d still like to fight with spearmen and horsemen for a while perhaps have a few early wars with those troops before getting gunpowder and planes. In the early game it takes longer for a worker to build a farm than to research a tech…. seems way out of whack.