Civilization 5 thoughts and review

I picked up Civ 5 on the day of release. I haven’t been much of a Civ player since the original game, but some of the previews looked good so I thought it might be worth a look. Now that I’ve finally beat the game on every difficulty level, it’s time to put my experiences into words.


Here’s the short of it.

The game uses Steam. Buying a retail copy saves you from having to download the entire game and gives you a nice large physical chart, but you’re still using Steam to play it. A couple plusses are that it follows your Steam account, and also opens up the ability for achievements through Steam. Downside is that if you’re not a fan of Steam as a method of DRM, you won’t be pleased.

Movement is now hexagonal. It feels more versatile, and was probably necessary due to the combat change listed next.

Combat has drastically changed. Units (with few exceptions) no longer stack, which means no more pain-trains of units. In many ways, this makes for a more tactical style of play, and is something I really enjoy. You now have to consider unit positioning when moving in on a city. On a simple level, this often means having melee units up front with ranged units behind. On a more complex level, you can use units to not only block more effectively, but can also place cities based on surrounding terrain – a city bordering 3 mountains only leaves 3 spaces for melee attack and effectively “chokes” any invading armies to those spaces. Again, since military units don’t stack, this reduces the chance of a city of that type being zerged by a mass of units. On the opposite side of things, if you’re on the invading end, a city bordering mountains is often going to take you more time to take over and you often have to plan for more units and time. Having a city border a river also has a similar impact due to penalties when attacking over rivers. Sometimes you have to choose between incurring great pains by attacking a city across a river, or decide whether you want to spend the extra turns crossing the river (often deeper into enemy territory) and try setting up in a more optimal position.

Cities can now defend themselves. If an enemy is in range of a city, the city can place it’s own attack (although it can only attack 1 unit per turn). Depending on the situation, this means that you may not need a unit in every city – granted, if a wave of enemies is approaching the city’s probably going to go down at some point in the next few turns, but a solo catapult or archer won’t be able to beat on a city endlessly. You can only have 1 military unit in a city at a time due to the stacking issue, but this unit can either garrison inside the city (adding to it’s defensive strength while garrisoned), or it can place it’s own attacks. Often having a ranged or seige unit inside the city is helpful (since it won’t be harmed by the opponent’s attacks, but can place it’s own), although there are times that a melee unit is preferable.

Religion is gone. Some individuals have found code in the game that references it, but there are many reasons it may have been abandoned. Anything from it not jiving as well with the new system to time constraints to plans for a future expansion are all possibilities. That said, I’m fine with it – the game doesn’t really need it in my opinion (although I’ll stress that many others are less-than-impressed over it’s removal).

Culture has a cool “talent tree” attached to it known as policies. For those who have played WoW or any other games with talent trees, you’ve essentially got 10 trees to choose from, each with 6 policies to it (a total of 6o “talents” if you want to think of it that way). Basically, each tree is designed towards a specific playstyle, whether it’s main city bonuses, fast expansion, military bonuses, culture bonuses, currency (and maritime) bonuses, science bonuses, etc. You can choose policies from multiple trees, although some trees “lock out” others. If you fill out 5 entire trees, you can trigger a cultural victory, although to fill out all 5 trees requires that you place a huge focus on generating culture.

City States have been implemented. You can think of them as “neutral states”. They won’t threaten you, or expand, or make agreements, or anything else. They’re not like other computer-controlled civilizations. You can walk through their territory without triggering war. They can’t “win” the game. So what are they good for? One of two things. They almost always have access to nice luxury resources, and are sometimes in a nice strategic location. You can take them over with your military if you want their cities. The down side is that after you wipe out enough of them, all the others will declare permanent war on you. Alternately, you can become friends with them (or ally with them), which will give you certain bonuses. Cultured states will give you culture points. Maritime states will give you food. Military states will give you units. If you’re allied, they’ll give you all their luxury and strategic resources too, and as allies, will go to war with anyone who declares war on you. Of course, if they’re allied with a computer player instead of you, they’ll be feeding resources to the computer player and will go to war with whoever the computer’s at war with.

City states are “bought” with influence. They’ll often have tasks for you to perform – sometimes it’s clearing out a barbarian camp that’s bothering them. Sometimes it’s killing another city state they don’t like, or killing a few units of another civilization who’s started attacking them. Other times, it’s something a little more simple – finding a natural wonder, generating a “great person”, or running a road from your capital to their city. If you’d rather not perform whatever task they’ve set before you though, you can simply buy influence by forking over either money or units. Either way works.

When taking over a city (whether it was owned by another civ or by a city state), you now have the option to make the city a “puppet”. You can still either raze or annex the city though if you prefer. If you choose the “puppet” route, the city doesn’t produce much unhappiness, and doesn’t hurt your culture. It will still add gold and science to your empire. However, you can’t tell a puppet city what to do – the computer will build whatever buildings it decides to. Unfortunately, the puppet city often builds a lot of worthless buildings which still cost you maintenance every turn. Fortunately, you can annex (or raze) a puppet city at any time. The reverse isn’t true though (you can’t puppet a city that you’ve annexed).

Happiness is now something that needs to be carefully balanced. There isn’t an infinite supply of happiness in the game. You get the most by having access to luxury resources, whether you work a luxury tile near your city, receive it from an allied city state, or trade for it with another civ. The problem is that each luxury resource only gives you happiness ONCE. Therefore, if you have access to 6 ivory (elephants), you only get the happiness from one of them – you’ll need to trade the other 5 with other civs if you want to make good use of them. Finding natural wonders gives you an additional happiness from each one found. Certain buildings generate happiness too, but often at a high maintenance cost. The last option is through the Policies mentioned above – some policies increase happiness.

You could ignore happiness, but that causes considerable problems. As your cities grow in population, they produce unhappiness. There’s also unhappiness generated based on your number of cities. If you take over a city and decide to annex it (rather than puppet it), it generates double unhappiness until you build a courthouse. When your civilization’s happiness level drops below 0, they’re “unhappy”, and your cities barely grow at all. If your happiness drops far enough in the negatives, your cities don’t grow at all, production is slowed, and your military units incur a huge penalty. Basically, once your civilization is “very unhappy”, you’re an easy target for annihilation. That’s why balancing happiness is CRUCIAL to winning. One of the biggest mistakes that people often make is annexing too many conquered cities at once, and then getting wiped out within the next few turns.

An option is of course to push for a huge amount of happiness. This minimizes the chance of dipping below 0 at an inopportune time, and happiness has the side-benefit of contributing towards your next golden age. However, generating an abundance of happiness is very challenging at higher difficulty levels, and usually requires expensive buildings to pull off. In addition, the happiness needed to fill up the next “golden age” increases after each golden age, so while focusing on happiness yields a lot of golden ages up front, the later ones become more expensive to the point where they’ll come more seldomly.


Sadly, Civ 5 has a lot of bugs.

The worst is an unoptimized engine. On any map sizes beyond “Standard”, turns eventually take a long time to process – sometimes up to 20-30 seconds which is ridiculous. I’ve played on an older Core2Duo as well as a new i3, and while the i3 is faster it’s still painful enough that you know something’s wrong. I could try the 4-core i7 or the 6-core AMD I have kicking around, but honestly I doubt it would be much more acceptable and it’s unreasonable to assume that most people have those sorts of systems.

Some tips are mislabeled (as an example, one of the policies claims +2 where it really gives +1). Some buildings don’t work properly.

Other things aren’t balanced at all or don’t make sense – setting a city focus to extra gold is considerably worse than building scouts and selling them. Upgrading a ranged unit eventually turns them into a rifleman (which is a melee unit – the same that melee units eventually upgrade to). Maritime city states are technically the “most valuable” dollar-wise, where military are the “least valuable”. Some of these things have been improved/fixed via mods, but while the built-in mod system looks good, these are things that should be adjusted with a patch.

When using DirectX 10/11 mode (instead of 9), I’ve had multiple occasions where certain textures get stuck on the screen until you exit to the main menu. This is despite the game always claiming that DX10/11 mode is “recommended”. I use DX9 now instead – at least it’s more stable and effects aren’t as critical in a strategy game anyway.

Crashes happen while generating certain large archapelago maps (presumably it can’t find enough places for civs and city states during generation). When you enter the game, you’re forced into watching part of the opening cutscene while the game loads which gets really old really fast (there’s no “loading” indicator).

These are just a few of the pending issues (the ones off the top of my head), and hopefully most will be fixed. On the plus side, I’ve never received a crash during game-play (aside from the DX10/11 texture issue which can be resolved by saving/exiting/reloading).



One of the reasons I didn’t play much beyond Civilization I was that I found the dominant strategy throughout the games was almost always a military strategy. Basically, you needed a strong military regardless of the victory condition you were after, or the computer would know you’re weak and wipe you out. Since you needed a huge military anyway, it didn’t make a lot of sense to pursue some other goal.

Fortunately, things have changed.

The first part of any strategy you decide to pursue is never to agree to “Open Borders” agreements. In fact, doing so is a good way to ensure you’re wiped out as soon as your military is weak. In Civ 5, the computer doesn’t know what you have unless they can see it. If they can’t see what you have, they often assume the worst. This is in contrast to the other Civ games where the computer always knew what you have anyway. In Civ 5, they often tell you that “Opening our borders can only serve to solidify our friendship” or some other balony. Don’t fall for it – open borders agreements do nothing for your relationship with the other civ. As soon as the other civ is allowed to walk through your lands, they’ll scout out your army. If you have a huge army, this could be a good thing, as they might be a little more fearful of you. If your army is a little on the weak side though, you’ll be attacked within a few turns. If you need to scout out the other civ’s land, offer them a luxury resource they don’t have, and they’ll usually give you open borders in addition to some cash.

Military victories (Domination) are fairly straightforward, and very do-able on any of the lower/normal difficulties. It’s nearly impossible (if not impossible) on the highest difficulties though. The biggest thing to really watch for is to be careful about breaking your word. Typically, when you start setting up your units, the computer will approach you and say that they’re concerned about your military’s presence on their borders. Your only options are “don’t worry, we’re just passing by” and “go to war”. If you choose “go to war”, the computer player gets the jump (since it’s their turn), and since you’re often not positioned well, you usually don’t get the upper hand. If you choose “don’t worry”, you can’t attack them without every other civ hating you for breaking your word. Do this to a couple players, and you might find that all the other players go to war with you at the same time.

The other piece to a military victory is City States. Remember that if they’re allied with someone, they’ll go to war on their side. If you’re allied with a City State in your opponent’s territory, your opponent will usually wipe them out shortly after war is declared. On the other hand, if your opponent is allied with a city state in your territory, that city state will attack any of your units nearby. Usually, the city state won’t go on the offensive (and if you’re far enough away from them you’ll be left alone), but sometimes they’ll go out of their way to attack one of your nearby cities. Once the war is over and you’ve either made peace or wiped out your opponent, you can make peace with any of the city states that were on their side (at no cost and they’ll always agree), but you have to manually talk to them or they’ll stay at war with you for the rest of the game.

Science Victories are about the same in difficulty as a military victory, again depending on your chosen difficulty level (hardest difficulties are virtually impossible). In addition to placing some overall focus on science, you generally want to have a few cities that are focused on production, because building the spaceship parts can take quite a few turns. In terms of getting the technology there, be sure to fill out the “Rationalism” policies when available. If there are enough city states in the game (and you’re able to fund alliances with them), try to get the Science-related policy from the “Patronage” tree – this has a larger effect on higher difficulty levels though.

Try to minimize the amount of time you’re at war when going for a Science Victory. Usually with a focus on science your technology increases fast enough that there’s always *something* to build in all your cities, and every turn you waste creating military units is a turn that could have been spent on a building. Keep a few units on hand though – again, since your technology level will be high, you should usually have more advanced units than your opponent, so you shouldn’t need a really large army anyway if it comes down to war. Paying to upgrade units along the way is better than making new ones most of the time.

Cultural Victories I’ve found to be a little harder than the 2 above types. Ideally, you want very few cities (each city increases the policy cost of each policy by a whopping 30%), and you want to ally with every single “cultured” city state available. It sounds simple, but is something of a balancing act. At first glance, you might think that having only 1 city would work out best since policy costs stay cheap, but gold, happiness, and research limits will have you hurting – you won’t have a lot of extra gold to buy off city states, your population will generate a lot of unhappiness (meaning you’ll need to buy happiness buildings which hurt your gold even more), and since your tech will often go slowly, you’ll find periods of time where there’s nothing available to build, your gold’s at a standstill, and you’re really questioning whether you’ll make it or not. Knowing that, you might decide to expand a huge amount and use your gold to buy every “cultured” city state and buy every culture building as soon as it’s available, but the culture costs will grow so much that you usually won’t fill all 5 policy trees needed before the end of time.

The best way I’ve found to secure a culture victory is to go with 3 cites. If you’re having problems, bum-rush towards Stonehenge at the start of the game (+8 culture at the beginning is huge). If you’re still having problems, playing as Ghandi will help you out with happiness (fewer, larger cities). Fill out the Patronage policy tree as soon as it’s available and start bribing “cultured” city states (try not to spend your money on anything else – refuse all research agreements the computer players offer). Peity and Freedom trees are the others to focus on, although SAVE your “2 free policies” from Peity until near the end when policy costs are highest. Generally, you’ll have grabbed the Tradition tree as your first one, which leaves you with 1 more tree to complete your 5. I usually go with Order or Commerce, but there are valid reasons for grabbing other trees if the situation warrants it.

The Diplomatic Victory is perhaps one of the easiest to win if you plan ahead. A large empire helps, focusing on gold and research. It’s basically a matter of “get the tech”, “build the UN”, “buy the city states”, “win”. Depending on the map and the other races, your biggest problem is going to be if too many city states get wiped out. Remember that you get 2 “votes” for building the UN (as long as you vote for yourself). Therefore, you’ll need 8 city states allied with you. If too many have been taken over, you’ll have to go with a military approach and liberate them from their captor. Basically, a city state votes for whoever liberated them most recently (you don’t even need to worry about buying them, although usually you’ll have lots of influence anyway for being their liberator).

It’s worth noting that you can win a Diplomatic victory even if another civ builds the UN before you do – they’ll simply have the 2 votes to start, where you’ll only have 1. You’ll have to buy at least 9 city states in that case (more if the computer is allied with a bunch of them too).

Difficulty levels

The AI doesn’t get much brighter as you move into higher difficulty levels. The way it works is that at low difficulties, you get huge resource advantages. At high difficulties, the computer gets huge resource advantages.

If you’re losing at medium/normal difficulty levels (Prince), turn things down. If you’re still losing, turn things down some more. Often, it’s key mistakes that you’re making, and once you figure out the 1 or 2 little things you’re doing wrong, you’ll find that you’re cleaning up. Open borders is probably the biggest mistake when not focusing on a military difficulty. Breaking your word (and having the world turn on you) is another. Remember, if you say “we’re sorry, we won’t settle near you or buy new land near you in the future” and you go ahead and do it anyway, you won’t be liked by anyone – you’re better off telling them you’ll settle in whatever lands you please – even if they don’t like it, they at least won’t tell others that you were dishonest.

For medium difficulties (Prince/King), if you play really strategically, you can pull of just about any victory.

When moving to the highest difficulty levels (Emperor to Deity), things can get very rough. I’ve found the only way I was able to beat Deity was to set up a map in my favor (“heroic start” resources, standard archapelago map, maxing city states and reducing computer civs), keep myself out of war, generate as much money as possible by expanding quickly onto unpopulated islands, bum-rush to the medival area (and save policy points until then so I could spend it on the Patronage tree to help my research), trade extra resources whenever I could, and buy city states. It didn’t take long for a computer civ to build the UN, at which point I barely beat them in votes (14 to 12). In other maps, (or with too many computer players) too many city states got wiped out.

I also tried pulling something of a “dirty trick” part way through when I worried I might be attacked soon. A computer player had expanded to a larger island I had started expanding to. This inevitably leads to war once the borders clash (especially when your army is laughably), so I built 2 more cities on the island near the first and sold all 3 to different civs so that they’d be butting heads with each other instead of me. It didn’t cause any wars as I’d hoped (one war eventually took place anyway between 2 of them), but at the very least they didn’t see my weak empire first hand.

An important thing to note at Immortal and Deity difficulty levels is that with the resource bonus the computers get, it’s impossible to keep up with them technologically. The best way to try to keep up is with alliances to City States once you have the Policy in the Patronage tree which gives you part of allied city-states technology (city states seem to get the computer bonuses too). You still won’t keep up, but it’ll give you a fighting chance.


Despite the annoying bugs and balance issues, Civilization 5 is a solid game. Those who’ve played Civ4 and are looking for “more of the same” might be a little distraught at some of the major differences, but I’m in the camp of people who approve of the direction the game’s taken. Civ 2-4 weren’t really my cup of tea, but Civ 5 does a very good job of being strategic and allowing completely different play styles to coexist.