So now you’re wondering, “Hey Shamus, is this series about Civilization, or about your dislike for Civilization VI?” I’m afraid the answer is “yes”. It turns out I had a lot to say about this series, and so this retrospective has become a dumping ground for 20 years of pent-up questions, complaints, compliments, and observations.
The first thing I want to talk about is…
The Flow of Time
One of the really clever tricks in the design of these games is that the flow of time varies by what era of human civilization you’re in. If you play by the default rules, then the game begins in 4000BC and ends in 2050AD. This span of time is divided into 6(ish) eras. These are obviously based on a historical model of human progress, but there’s quite a bit of artistic license taken to keep things simple and comprehensible. That’s fine. This is a game, not a history course.
Here are the eras in terms of gameplay:
Ancient Era (4000 BCE to 500 BCE)
This stage of the game is all about exploring the map and settling new territory as quickly as possible. There’s lots of empty space between players and most of the combat is between players and the AI controlled barbarians. Military units are just guys with clubs or sharp sticks. Sometimes players end up in skirmishes with each other if they start close to each other and they both covet the same bit of real estate, but combat is also kinda boring and one-dimensional at this point.
If you’re not getting into fights, then you’ll spend a lot of the Ancient Era smacking the “Next Turn” button over and over again.
Classical Era (500 BCE to 800 AD)
This part of the game is when outward growth slows down and the more complex management stuff comes into play. You’re usually running a slightly more sophisticated form of government, establishing trade routes, and securing your borders. The military units will feel very Roman to the typical western audience: Chariots, dudes with pikes, and so on.
Medieval Era (800AD to 1400AD)
In the real world, there were still large sections of habitable wilderness that had been untouched, but in the typical Civ game this is where things get dense. The borders have solidified, the map is mostly full, and players are now settling the little patches of substandard land on the fringes of their empire.
At this point players are engaging with all of the systems of the game at the same time. You need to create culture so the people on your borders don’t start identifying with and embracing your rivalsIn the real world, you can imagine a border city of a large empire that begins to speak the language and worship the gods of a rival empire, simply because that’s who they have the most contact with., which could cause the city to rebel. You need to be cranking out religious power for pretty much the same reason. And most of all, you really need to be doing as much research as possible if you don’t want to be crushed by your foes in the next era. You want your military to be large enough to deter a foe, but you don’t want to spend so much on military units that it impedes your science progressUnless you’re going for a military victory, in which case: Just keep murdering people, you horrible despot.. At this point in the game army upkeep becomes a serious concern. Also, the more knights you build now, the more expensive upgrades you’ll need to do in the future when it’s time to start handing out guns.
Renaissance Era (1400AD to 1800D)
Your government becomes more powerful, enabling you to make more money and build more crap, but the downside is that your people have higher expectations of comfort and infrastructure. Your government is a little more complex to manage, and maintaining the happiness of your citizens gets a little harder.
If you’ve been keeping up with research, then your military units are running around with firearms. Sadly, these aren’t quite as OP as they were in the real world. That’s probably for the best in terms of gameplayAlso, you’re free to invent some headcanon that says the knight icons represent 20 guys with swords, but the militiamen icons represent just a dozen dudes with flintlock rifles. The presentation in this game is abstract enough that you can fudge a lot of stuff like this..
Industrial Era (1800AD to 1900AD)
Build factories! Make sure you’ve got a reliable source of PRECIOUS OIL, which was previously hidden on the map and wasn’t visible until your scientists realized it was important. Even if you’re not going to be fighting a war, you still need strategic resources like oil so you can run your factories and build all the temples / wonders / museums / research labs you’ll need for the win state you’re going for.
Military units can be summed up as “guys with guns, only moreso”.
Modern Era (1900 onward)
In later editions of Civilization, this era gets broken up into smaller eras like “atomic age” and “information age”. This is where things get crazy. The map is full, everyone’s strategies are clear, and everyone is sprinting through the tech tree as quickly as possible.
The military units in this stage are where the game gets wild. Marines, tanks, planes, paratroopers, destroyers, submarines, missile launchers, and (eventually) nukes.
To be clear, you’re not locked into the intended technologies of the time period. If you really go all-in on science then maybe you’ll be running around with muskets in the medieval period or flying jets in the industrial Era.
The game ends when:
- A player (AI or otherwise) makes their culture completely dominant around the world.
- A player makes their religion the world religion, supplanting all others.
- A player conquers the entire world through military force.
- A player launches a successful future-space mission to colonize another world.
- A player has enough diplomatic muscle to get essentially elected as the winner by the other players.
- Time runs out in the year 2050AD, and the winner is chosen by score.
Pacing is More Important Than History
This all sounds reasonable enough, but the problem is that history doesn’t map neatly into a turn-based environment like this. Ideally, we’d want each of these eras to last roughly the same amount of time so they feel like distinct phases of the game. But if we did the naive thing and said that 1 turn = 10 years, then the game would go like this:
- 350 turns in the Ancient Era.
- 130 turns in the Classical Era.
- 60 turns in the middle ages.
- 80 turns in the Renaissance.
- 10 turns in the Industrial Revolution.
- 15 turns in the modern age.
That would be horrible! You’d spend over half the game in the boring-ass ancient era with nothing to do, and then the interesting and exciting bits would blink by in a few minutes. 15 turns would just barely be enough time to build a single submarine and scoot it across the map to take a single potshot at an enemy before the game ended.
Worse, this would map poorly to how we perceive history. We know very little about the ancient world, much more about the classical world, and we understand the modern world at an insane level of detail. To someone reading a history book, barely anything happened between 4000BCE and 3000BCE. If the game ran on a linear scale, we’d spend most of our time crawling through the mostly-blank stretches of history, and then blinking past the intense detail of recent centuries.
To fix this, the game doesn’t run on a linear scale. Instead, individual turns cover smaller and smaller periods of time as you go. When you start a brand-new game in 4000BCE, then 40 years will pass when you hit the “Next Turn” button. That’s kind of sad if you think about it from the perspective of the inhabitants of the world. Given the life expectancy of humans in that era, the people that were babies before you hit the button will be nearly dead after you hit the button. Given how fast turns are in the early game, you’re effectively blinking past entire generations with every click.
In the Classical Era, each turn is 25 years. That’s a lot slower, although it’s still a quarter of a century every time you hit the button. The turns keep getting shorter until you reach the modern world and every turn is exactly one year.
But while turns are getting shorter for your citizens, they’re getting longer for the player. At the start of the game, there’s not a lot for you to do. You’ve got one city and one military unit, and there’s no high-level government management to worry about. You just nudge your scout unit around the map and maybe fuss with your lone city once every dozen turns. You’ll go through a dozen turns in a single minute. In the last stages of the game you’ll be managing dozens of cities and dozens of units. You’ll be running a government, an economy, a religion, a research community, an army, and a culture. On top of that, you’ll be haggling with your rivals to do trades, declare war, make peace, or form alliances. Each turn will require you to make dozens of decisions. It’s not unusual for a single turn to span multiple minutes. And if you’re actively fighting a war (or multiple wars!) then individual turns will become ridiculously long.
Other people have crunched the numbers and worked out how many turns each era of the game lasts:
- Ancient: 75
- Classical: 60
- Medieval: 25
- Renaissance: 50
- Industrial: 60
- Modern: 190
That’s more like it! The early stages of the game are all matched fairly evenly. (Although I guess the medieval period is a little short.) Then the bulk of the game is spent in the modern age where players have the most options to work with. The modern era is the shortest according to the real-world timeline, but winds up being the longest for the purposes of gameplay.
This helps keep the game from drifting too far away from historical expectations. If you’re playing on easy, if you have good map position, and if your foes stupidly leave you alone, then you’ll be able to run up the tech tree faster than historical norms. Maybe you’ll be able to get rifles in the medieval period or launch a space program in the industrial era. But no matter how hard you push, the turn count of individual eras will make it hard to get things too far out of alignment. You’re not going to be running around with rifles in the Classical Era or launching rockets in the middle ages.
(Or will you? I’ll come back to this topic later in the series.)
These two forces – the length of a turn in-game and the length of a turn for the player – work perfectly to smooth out the pacing problems and make the flow of time feel both fun and historically plausible. We take it for granted now after the formula has been around for three decades, but this is a brilliant bit of design work that solves countless problems.
This is even more impressive when you consider the variable length of a game. You can set the gameplay rules to create a “quick” game that will run through all of recorded history in just 320 turns. A normal paced game runs for 460, and a marathon game is a grueling 1200 turns. And yet regardless of which mode you play on, everything unfolds more or less sensibly.
While the Pace of the game works on a macro level, it does seem to falter a bit when it comes to individual units. So let’s talk about…
The Pace of Walking
Movement in this game is weird. At the start of the game, your warrior moves about 1 space per turn. Remember that each turn is 40 years, and map tiles are supposedly spaced a few hundred miles apartOf course, this also depends on the size of the map you’re playing on.. It’s common to plonk down your first city and then scoot your warrior around the area to reveal your surroundings. This lone unit might spend 20 turns wandering around in the wilderness before you bring them home to protect the city.
If we take this literally, then this small group of men spent 800 years / 20 generations exploring your little corner of the world, somehow telepathically broadcasting their discoveries back to your city. You can assume that the information was carried back home via runners – a messenger can certainly cover a measly few hundred miles in 40 years – but that only raises questions about why you can’t bring the unit itself home instantly if barbarians show up. When your warrior gets home after 800 years of wandering, they should no longer be your warrior. They ought to be an entirely separate culture of nomads. After that much time, even your languages will have drifted apart.
The problem isn’t that this doesn’t make sense, it’s that it makes combat fiddly and nonsensical. It takes so long to move units around the board that it’s possible for your cutting-edge pikemen technology to be obsolete by the time your pikemen hike all the way over to your opponent’s territory. You end up declaring war and then it takes 120 years before you get around to trying to kill each other. Reinforcements take decades. The ancient world was slow-moving, but not THAT slow! It’s like warfare is happening on some other timescale that’s completely divorced from what the game is supposed to be simulating.
The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed North America twice in the span of three years. If they moved at the pace of ancient-era civ units, the journey would have taken them a thousand years.
You can (somewhat) fix this by playing the game on the marathon speed setting. Troop movements will be the same in terms of distance per turn, but now individual turns will cover a smaller chunk of time. The downside is that the game now takes bloody ages to play. A standard-pace game can be completed in a day, but a marathon game can take a week!
So how else could we fix this? I suppose that instead of adding more turns to the game we could speed up unit movement. That would make their movement make a lot more sense over the given timescale. The problem is that this is a turn based game. If we allowed military units to move (say) 20 spaces a turn, then another player could declare war and flatten your entire empire in a single turn without you ever getting the opportunity to react. While nonsensical, the languid pace of combat in civ gives you time to react and ramp up production to fend off an attacker.
Once units can move more spaces than cities can see, the game instantly becomes chaotic and all non-combat strategies are rendered pointless. There’s no use in spending a thousand years building a cultural powerhouse if another player can take the whole thing away from you in a single one-turn surprise attack. Civilization would become just a wargame.
Obviously you’re not supposed to think about unit speed any more than you’re supposed to ponder why a top hat ought to get paid $200 to run laps around Atlantic City, New Jersey. It’s just a gameplay contrivance. Despite my objections, I think the Civilization games do an overall brilliant job of balancing the needs of a simulation against the needs of gameplay. It’s strange that units move so slowly, but it works.
Again, I realize that making turns take progressively fewer years as the game goes on seems obvious now, but I don’t think it was at all obvious in 1990 when the game was designed. This was a brilliant bit of design work and I love how beautifully the game flows as a result.
Notice: My internet has been flaking out for the last 24 hours, and as a result I had trouble getting this post ready for publication. Sorry about the lack of images / proofing / basic coherency. Also sorry for being mostly AWOL in the comments. I’ll try to fix this up once my internet service returns to normal.
 In the real world, you can imagine a border city of a large empire that begins to speak the language and worship the gods of a rival empire, simply because that’s who they have the most contact with.
 Unless you’re going for a military victory, in which case: Just keep murdering people, you horrible despot.
 Also, you’re free to invent some headcanon that says the knight icons represent 20 guys with swords, but the militiamen icons represent just a dozen dudes with flintlock rifles. The presentation in this game is abstract enough that you can fudge a lot of stuff like this.
 Of course, this also depends on the size of the map you’re playing on.
There are two major schools of thought about how you should write software. Here's what they are and why people argue about it.
A game I love. It has a solid main story and a couple of really obnoxious, cringy, incoherent side-plots in it. What happened here?
Lost Laughs in Leisure Suit Larry
Why was this classic adventure game so funny in the 80's, and why did it stop being funny?
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
Two minutes of fun at the expense of a badly-run theme park.