Overview of the Civilization Game Series

Civilization is one of the fundamental games of the PC gaming experience. It’s a game that most players are familiar with, even if they’ve never really sat down to play a game. It’s the game that seems to have seeped into the consciousness of gamers of all stripes. You’d be hard pressed to find even a hardcore FPS fan who hasn’t at least seen a game of Civ in passing.

Civ is the formative game when it comes to the 4X genre and the turn-based strategy genre on the PC. While there have been many games that have sought to copy the formula, none have ever been quite as successful as Civ. Whether players were looking for history, strategy, or just the chance to play a game for years at a time, this series delivered. Seeing where it came from makes it easier to appreciate where Civ is going today.

Spanning several video games, a number of spin-offs, and the transition into several other formats. Civ is one of the true titans of the gaming industry, and it looks like it’s going to be around for years to come. No matter how Civ changes, its deep roots in the gaming industry will keep players coming back to the series that started it all.

Civilization History

Video game history is often fraught with change. While Civilization has seemed remarkably stable from the outside, it has actually had quite a turbulent history. It has managed to weather every storm, but it’s often looked like it would go down with the various studios to which it was attached.

What’s impressive is that Civilization has stayed easily identifiable through all the turmoil. Despite changing hands several times, the core game play has remained largely untouched. It seems that this is one property that is far more valuable than anything else to which it might be attached. Civ, simply put, seems immune to the changes in the game industry.

MicroProse (1989–1996)

Civilization was designed by Sid Meier in an attempt to move away from games that involved nothing more than destruction. While MicroProse had largely been a involved in military strategy and flight simulator titles, this game was more influenced by the rise of god games.

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The game would be followed up by Civilization II in 1996, the first direct sequel to any of Sid Meier’s games. While the games were both successful, they didn’t set particularly well with the co-founder of MicroProse. The company’s initial purpose had been to create flight sims, and that was the direction that it was intended to go.

Firaxis (1996–2001)

Firaxis was founded after the sale of MicroProse. The former company went into heavy debt after a series of misjudged business decisions and was sold to Spectrum Holobyte. The move cost MicroProse much of its original staff, while those responsible for Civilization moved on to form Firaxis.

Firaxis saw the release of Gettyburg and Alpha Centauri, both of which were influenced by the style of Civilization. While the games themselves weren’t quite the same, they carried a great deal of the same spirit. Unfortunately, the Firaxis years would also be beset with a number of lawsuits that caused some damage to the Civilization brand.

Litigation (1997–1998)

Civilization existed as an unrelated board game before the video game was created. Before Civilization could be published, a naming deal had to be worked out with the game’s publisher, Avalon Hill. The situation was fairly normal for the time, with few potential liabilities expected.

In 1997, Activision bought the right to the Civilization name from Avalon Hill, and then launched as suit against MicroProse for copyright infringement. MicroProse counter-sued, and initially won both the name and the right to publish future Civilization titles in the process. Oddly enough, both companies would soon be acquired by Hasboro, making the point entirely moot.

Infogrames (2001–2004)

In 2001, Hasboro Interactive was bought out by Infogrames. This included the sale of the Atari brand, and the company would soon rebrand itself as Atari Interactive.

This brought about the unique situation in which the company who had originally made Civilization would be responsible for Firaxis’ third game in the series. Civilization III would be released in 2001, and would go on to be one of the most successful titles in the series.

Civilization III also brought with it the concept of expansion packs. It would be the first in the series to feature expansions, something that has become very common in the series to this day.

Take-Two (2004–present)

In 2004, Take-Two bought the rights to Civilization from Infogrames. 2K games, a subsidiary of Take-Two, would go on to publish Civliization IV. By this point, Civilization would go through some of its biggest design changes with each iteration. No longer would it just cater to old players – it would go through changes to bring in new players.

Despite changes, Civilization continued to be incredibly profitable. Take-Two would go on to buy Firaxis and begin publishing many more Civilization games. This relationship continues to this day, with the latest title released in 2016.

Civilization Gameplay

While Civilization has come a long way in terms of how it looks, this is a series that has absolutely been defined by its game play. While simple on the surface, it’s actually incredibly deep.

Most of the same systems have been in place since the earliest games, but a few major changes have made the series into the juggernaut it is today. It doesn’t take long to learn how to pick up a game of Civilization, but it can literally take years to learn how to beat the game on its hardest settings. It’s the perfect game for dedicated strategy fans.

Civilization begins with its map. It may be either procedurally generated or pre-defined, but it will always contain some mixture of starting civilizations and barbarian tribes. Players may choose an historical empire and its leader as their avatar, and begin the game at a random map location.

At this point, it is up to the player to expand, trade, wage war, and ultimately become the dominant civilization on the map. Games can be played against the AI or in local and online multiplayer modes. Games have been known to last for a few hours or as long as several years.

During the game play, players will spend most of their time split between dealing with other civilizations and managing their own. To a large degree, both are done through the technology tree. Players will discover various types of military government, philosophies, and scientific achievements.

Each of these discoveries has an impact on the game play, some of which might even be necessary to win the game. The tech tree has changed significantly since the first game, but the goal of getting to the more important technologies has remained an important part of Civilization since day one.

Victory conditions vary, but they do tend to follow a few paths. In many cases, players seek victory by destroying or conquering all of the other civilization’s capital cities. The player can win a diplomatic victory by having the other civilizations vote for them in the United Nations.

There’s also the option to launch the player civilization to Alpha Centauri. There’s also the chance to win a cultural victory, which involves building a certain number of cultural buildings. Finally, players can win by points after a certain number of turns have expired. There’s a win condition in the game for almost every kind of player.

Beyond Civilization

Civilization has become something much more than its main series. While six games do exist within the main line of the game, there have been far more entries in spin-off media. Some of these games have been very similar to Civ, while others have changed in order to become successful in new mediums.

These games have had a relatively wide range of success, with some being almost more beloved than the main series itself. If you’re looking to continue your Civ experience after the main games, these are the products at which you must look.

Spin Offs

Some of Civilization’s best known spin offs have come in the arena of video games. The vast majority of these games are built along the same lines as Civ, and have served to keep the game line alive even when new games weren’t being published. These games have made their way to consoles and have expanded upon what players expect out of the game’s universe.

  • Sid Meier’s Colonization (1994): It’s easy to see this early MicroProse game as a Civ on a smaller scale. Instead of taking place across the world, it puts players in control of the colonization of the New World. The major driving force of this game is resource collection, something that’s largely automated within the main game series.
  • Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999): The first Civ spin-off to take place in space, Alpha Centauri is a beloved strategy game. It involves several competing civilizations on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. Its game play is virtually identical to that of Civilization. There is, however, far more customization in this game than in the parent series.
  • Sid Meier’s Alien Crossfire (1999): An expansion back to Alpha Centauri. Brings with it two new alien races and a variety of new technologies. Very well received among most players. Definitely a must-buy for those who have Alpha Centauri.
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  • CivCity: Rome (2006): A city-building strategy game built on a much smaller scale than Civ. More inspired by SimCity than Civ, though it retains some of the flavor of the latter. Features a great number of historical facts and access to historical buildings. A great game for learning about Rome and the Roman Empire.
  • Civilization IV: Colonization (2008): An update of Colonization built on the Civilization IV engine. This game features the same mix of colonizing powers as the first game. The main goal of the game is to build up colonies and then declare independence. Very heavily influenced by the American War of Independence. Somewhat controversial among the fandom.
  • Civilization World (2011): A short-lived Civilization game on Facebook. It’s not a particularly well-liked game among Civ players, but it did last for two years. It was an attempt to expand the games out to a wider audience, one that sadly failed. Impossible to play in its original configuration today.
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth (2014): A spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri and Civilization V. Places players on a new world after a “Great Mistake” back on Earth. Features an alien world, new civilizations, and some very unique win conditions. Definitely a huge step forward in terms of graphics, though it disappointed some fans of Alpha Centauri.
  • Beyond Earth: Rising Tide (2015): The expansion to Beyond Earth. The major addition is aquatic cities, which definitely changes the nature of most maps. An improved diplomacy system also makes an appearance in this game. A few new map types also make an appearance, which added to the longevity of the game.
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  • Sid Meier’s Starships (2015): A tie-in game to Beyond Earth. Players take control of a fleet of starships to explore the galaxy and engage in strategic combat. The ships are highly configurable and the game ties back to Beyond Earth. The game had incredibly mixed reviews and many players were disappointed by the limited nature of the game.

Related Civ games

Of course, not all the games related to Civ are actually from the publishing companies. There have been several games that have been heavily influenced by Civilization and brought to the public. Some of these games are closely related to the series, while others are a bit more different in order to avoid copyright claims. These games are a great alternative to Civ for players who are done with the main series.

  • Freeciv (1996): A free and open source clone of Civilization. The game mostly resembles Civ II, though it has a number of settings that can differentiate it from that game. The main goal was to make Civilization playable over the internet, which the game accomplished before the main Civ series. A major step forward in open source games.
  • Civilization: Call to Power (1999): An Activision game that was meant to be a successor to Civilization. Features a much longer time scale. It’s also the first game to feature pollution as a meaningful feature and to expand the map into space. Was thought of as overly clinical, but still a rather good successor to Civ.
  • Call to Power II (2000): The sequel to Call to Power. Dropped the Civilization name because Activision no longer had a trademark on Civilization. Had a much improved UI, but removed the space elements for the game. Best known for supporting mods and eventually having its source code released.
  • FreCol (2003): Another open-source clone of Civilization. Make in Java and thus platform agnostic. Features some improved visuals and a few new game play elements. As close to a truly free Civ as is possible to play on a modern gaming machine. Generally well-liked by its fans, but hasn’t kept up well with the main series.
  • CivilizationEDU (2017): A modified version of Civilization V. It is meant to be used in educational settings to show the relationship between the military, technology, and society. Supported by GlassLab. Well-regarded as an educational tool, if not as a game in and of itself.

Board and card games

Civilization was heavily influenced by board games. It’s no surprise, then, that Civilization eventually made its way into the same genre. While a bit more complicated than the computer games, the board games have been very well received. As board games regain popularity, it’s very likely that Civilization board games will become even more popular.

  • Civilization: The Boardgame (2002): The first officially licensed Civilization board game. Modled on Civ III. Can be played with basic or advanced rules. Currently out of print, but still very popular. A definite winner in the board game space.
  • Civilization: The Card Game (2006): A card game meant to simulate the play of the original Civilization game. Some of the initial rules were considered to be hard to understand. Still relatively popular among players of the game. Somewhat more difficult to play than you might imagine.
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  • Civilization: The Board Game (2010): Published by Fantasy Flight. Based on Civ IV. Currently the most successful Civilization board game. Split into six civilizations, it’s surprisingly close to the real game. Definitely a good game for die-hard fans of board games or of the Civilization series in general.
  • Civilization: Fame and Fortune (2011): The first expansion to the Board Game. Added four new civilizations to play. Also added some much-needed rule revisions. Added a few new optional game mechanics that have been embraced by the community.
  • Civilization: Wisdom and Warfare (2013): Added six more civilizations to play. Added a few new optional rules and revisions. The most current iteration of Civilization in the board game space. Considered a necessity by most of the people who play the game.

Civilization has managed to last for years, evolving when necessary and keeping the features that players have loved. It’s a great game for those looking for long-term, well-paced game play. While it might not have the same verve as real time strategy, it is perhaps the best example of turn-based strategy genre in existence. One thing is definitely for sure when it comes to Civilization, though – it is going to be around for many years to come.

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Paul Bellow

LitRPG Author Paul Bellow

Paul Bellow is a LitRPG author, gamer, RPG game developer, and publisher of several online communities. In other words, an old school webmaster. He also developed and runs LitRPG Adventures, a set of advanced RPG generators powered by GPT-3 AI. Here at LitRPG Reads, he publishes articles about LitRPG books, tabletop RPG books, and all sorts of DND content that's free to use in your personal tabletop campaign - i.e. non-commercial use. Enjoy your stay and reach out on Twitter or Discord if you want to make contact.

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