Civilization II (released in 1996) has often been referred to as the best computer strategy game of all time. It's certainly very addictive, and I've personally spent far too much time on it in the past. But I'm rather surprised at the sort of praise it attracts, because it has substantial defects.
- The basic concept of following a tribe's development from 4000 BC onwards is clearly appealing.
- The use of different types of terrain offering different exploitable resources works well.
- Exploring the randomly-generated map is fun and quite exciting.
- The construction of cities, roads, and public buildings feels pleasantly creative (in contrast to the military aspect of the game). It's a kind of SimCountry.
- The map is quite attractive, though rather unsophisticated by modern standards.
- It's a turn-based game, which I prefer to so-called real-time games — most of which are actually accelerated-time games. A true real-time game on this subject would be infeasible, because you'd need to spend six thousand years playing it...
- It's too long. It goes on for hours and hours. No game should last more than two or three hours, maximum. A long and addictive game like this will steal large chunks of your life; and surely you have something better to do in life than this?
- In the later stages, there are a lot of cities and units and you have to make too many small, tedious, routine decisions and actions (more like work than fun). This partly explains why the game is so long. The early part of the game is more enjoyable and can be played much more quickly.
- Each unit has to be moved manually over the map, square by square. Although this can be done quite quickly with the arrow keys, a more modern and convenient system would be to click on the unit, click on its destination, and allow the program to find the best route to that destination.
- Units cannot be grouped and ordered around as a group.
- No general policies can be specified for what should be built in cities: you have to give build orders for each city manually.
- To sum up the above four points, the game displays far too little intelligence. It should work more intelligently to assist the player in routine tasks and to oppose him with sensible strategies and tactics.
- There are two end-of-game conditions, neither of them satisfactory. You can end the game either by completely wiping out all opposition (the military option), or by landing a spaceship on another planet (the peaceful option). The military option goes on too long: the programmed opponents should know when to surrender. But the peaceful option takes even longer; furthermore, it's poorly integrated into the rest of the game and fails to satisfy.
- You can't compare your achievements in one game with your achievements in another, because one gamestart is not even roughly equal to another. When you start a game, you may be greatly advantaged or disadvantaged compared with your previous game, and you may not be sure which until you've played some way into the game. You can avoid this problem by playing scenarios instead of the full game, but to me scenarios have much less appeal (furthermore, they tend to be almost undocumented). More effort should have been made to even out the various advantages and disadvantages that a player starts off with.
- Although the military side of the game can't be avoided, it makes a dull wargame. Fighting a defensive war is easy (because the programmed opponents fight brainlessly) but very tedious (because they keep making nuisance attacks). Fighting an offensive war, the main difficulty is in moving all the required units laboriously, one by one, to wherever you want to attack; it also tends to be rather tedious.
- Combat feels crude and unrealistic. Defeated units are completely wiped out (which rarely happens in any real war).
- Anachronism is alive and well. Phalanxes, triremes, etc., can still be found wandering around in modern times.
- The way barbarians are used in the game, they're merely a nuisance, frequently wasting the player's time without adding to the interest of the game. I'd prefer to have no barbarian units in the game, but simply a risk that any undefended city may be taken over by barbarians (and this risk should diminish in modern times, perhaps to zero).
Given all these defects, it's surprising that the game is so addictive. But it is.
How to win
There are two basic approaches to the game: peaceful and warlike. It's deliberately designed so that you can win either way. Unfortunately, the peaceful way is more difficult, takes longer, and becomes really tedious and troublesome because of all the city maintenance you have to get involved in, all the nuisance attacks from the programmed opponents that you have to keep fighting off, and the awkward restrictions of republican and democratic governments.
Therefore I have to recommend the military option. And this is how I go about it.
My objective is to control all cities on the map as soon as possible (I try to minimize the length of the game because I enjoy it less and less as it goes on). To do this I need resources, and you get resources from cities. So I build as many as I can, as fast as I can. I try to build each city three squares from the last one, so that military units can move from one city to another in one turn by road. Cities that close to each other can never grow to maximum size, but I don't plan to grow huge cities anyway (they take a lot of troublesome maintenance): just lots of smaller ones.
I try to have a military unit there already when building a city. Completely undefended cities attract opposing units and barbarians, and it's so annoying to lose a city without even a fight.
A city should be building a settler unless:
- it's already supporting a settler
- it can't support a settler (no food surplus: needs irrigation)
- it badly needs a military unit
If it's not building a settler, it should be building a military unit, ship, caravan, or diplomat. Don't bother with public buildings until you have at least 14 cities; after which the inadequately-documented “riot factor” sets in and gives you unhappiness problems the more cities you build. This problem goes away when you move to communism, but it inhibits expansion under monarchy. Garrison each city with three units to keep the population under control (and for defence). Harbors can be useful in some cases.
There are four Wonders worth building: the Pyramids (as soon as possible), Sun Tzu's War Academy, Leonardo's Workshop, and the Statue of Liberty. If you play at Deity level (I don't), add Michaelangelo's Chapel to that list. I try to avoid the temptation to build other Wonders, though I like capturing them. The Hanging Gardens may be worth building.
I try to use settlers to build new cities whenever feasible. Terrain improvements are tempting but less important. I build roads first, because they speed up movement and also increase city trade. I then consider mining hills. For some reason I become irresistibly tempted to irrigate, but irrigation should be low priority unless a city needs more food to grow at all.
I go from despotism to monarchy as soon as possible, then from monarchy to communism as soon as possible. The quickest way (though never quick enough) is to research Democracy, build the Statue of Liberty, then have a revolution and select communism. Communism gives you fewer problems than any other government (in this game, anyway!), and still allows you a reasonable rate of scientific research (unlike fundamentalism). Don't even think about republicanism or democracy: they're more trouble than they're worth.
The main use of caravans is to allow multiple cities to contribute towards building a Wonder. It's probably not worth building caravans for any other purpose. But remember you can finish off a Wonder with cash, if you have enough cash. That's particularly useful if you get a warning that someone else is about to complete the Wonder you're working on.
The main use of diplomats, oddly enough, is to knock down city walls. If you're finding it hard to attack an opponent because of his city walls, assemble a force of diplomats and sabotage the walls.