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'Civilization': A brief history of just one more turn

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2K Games and Firaxis Games officially unveiled “Civilization: Beyond Earth” at PAX East, which ended Sunday. The storied franchise heads for the stars for the second time in its twenty-three year history but the history of Sid Meier’s just-one-more-turn creation is as interesting as the games themselves.

Civilization” was birthed during the peak of Microprose’s publishing existence in 1991 after Meier had already established his name in the gaming industry by co-founding the company and having his name plastered on titles like “Pirates!” and “Railroad Tycoon”. Inspired by the board game “Risk” as well as the Avalon Hill boardgame of the same name and the classic “Empire” video game, Meier and his fellow designer Bruce Shelley went on to create a game that has come to be considered the standard of turn-based 4X strategy games.

Civilization (1991)
Civilization (1991) Microprose

Civilization (1991)

The original “Civilization” game was a DOS release for the PC and published by Microprose. The game was eventually revised and released on multiple platforms including consoles of the day like Nintendo’s Super NES, Sony’s Playstation and the Sega Saturn.

This included the 1995 release of “CivNet”, which not only added improved graphics and Windows 3.1/95 support but also multiplayer via  LAN, hotseat and primitive internet play over the laughably slow modems compared to today.

Colonization (1994)
Colonization (1994) Microprose

Colonization (1994)

“Colonization” saw Meier team up with Brian Reynolds to take the turn-based “Civilization” formula and modify it for the colonization of the New World. While the games have similar visuals, “Colonization” saw players pick a country, sail across the ocean, establish colonies and trade with both the old world and the new. The game was not without its controversies though as slave labor was not touched on and Portugal, a significant colonial power at the time, was not included.

Civilization II (1996)
Civilization II (1996) Microsprose

Civilization II (1996)

By 1996, both Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley had left Microprose over disagreements with the direction the company was taking.  Brian Reynolds helmed the game instead along with Douglas Caspian-Kaufman and Jeff Briggs.

With new designers came new features such as firepower and hitpoints, which helped solve the humorous problem of phalanx units defeating battleships in the original. Enhancements were also made based on player complaints and feedback as well as lessons learned from “Colonization”. The view of the game was also changed from a straight top-down view to an isometric view.

“Civilization II” received near universal praise and two expansions were released with the first title “Conflicts in Civilization”, which added 20 new scenarios and a macro language to help scenario designers create their own. This followed by “Civ II: Fantastic Worlds” that included the scenarios for the colonization of Mars and a fantasy “Midgard” scenario featuring elves and goblins. The “Civilization” title was shortened for this expansion due to a legal dispute following Meier’s departure. 

Alpha Centauri (1999)
Alpha Centauri (1999) Firaxis Games

Alpha Centauri (1999)

And thus, begins an interesting time in the history of “Civilization” that saw the multiple variations of the game in the same year from three different publishers. Meier had gone onto found Firaxis Games and the third game produced by the company was the space-based “Civilization” game, “Alpha Centauri”.

Brian Reynolds had also left Microprose by this time and joined Meier in creating a more story-driven variant of “Civilization” formula. Many of the elements from “Civilization II” were carried over but tweaked and renamed for the science fiction-based settling of another planet. Aside from the science fiction twist, the game also introduced “ruthless”, “moderate” and “idealistic” stances that opened up value-based choices to the player.

The high quality science fiction storyline combined with the a new spin on the proven gameplay formula led to such critical acclaim for “Alpha Centauri” that it was used as a measuring stick for later versions of “Civilization”. Additionally, many of the new mechanics would later reappear in later games.

Civilization: Call to Power (1999)
Civilization: Call to Power (1999) Activision

Civilization: Call to Power (1999)

While bearing the “Civilization” name, “Call to Power” was actually developed and published by Activision with no help from Sid Meier. The game design was led by William Westwater and released just two months after “Alpha Centauri”.

While not as popular, the game did introduce new elements such as extending the timeline out to the year 3000 as well as an expanded space colonization view which included space units such as fighters, cruisers and warriors. There’s even a technology to be researched that can unlock the ability to colonize the oceans.

Despite these innovations, “Call to Power” did not live up to the “Civilization” moniker. Activision’s first attempt was beaten up by reviewers for everything from the interface to poor gameplay and balance.

Civilization II: Test of Time (1999)
Civilization II: Test of Time (1999) Microprose

Civilization II: Test of Time (1999)

Developed by Microprose and published by Hasbro Interactive, “Civilization II: Test of Time” was the developers final attempt at cashing in on the “Civilization” brand. The game started with the original “Civilization II” and updated the graphics with new art and animations as well as by adding an extended campaign that featured the aliens from Alpha Centauri (not to be confused with the Firaxis titles) after the players achieved the ability to launch the spaceship.

“Test of Time” also came with a science-fiction campaign that featured multiple maps for different planets. It was joined by a fantasy campaign with four different maps that represented different realms from Norse mythology.

While the multiple maps were the primary innovation for “Test of Time”, it wasn’t enough for reviewers or the gaming public following so close the releases of “Alpha Centauri” and “Call to Power”. The game was also missing some features that were expected such as diplomat animations and movies for each of the Wonders. 

Call to Power II (2000)
Call to Power II (2000) Activision

Call to Power II (2000)

Just 18 months after “Civilization: Call to Power” was released, Activision pumped out “Call to Power II” but dropped the “Civilization” moniker. Why, Activision had lost the rights by this time.

The upgrades made to the game were mostly meant to address the problems with the first “Call to Power” such as the oft-criticized user interface and the poor gameplay balance.

Space and sea colonization was removed marking another significant change, but these changes weren’t enough to assuage reviewers. The game received low scores and Activision ultimately stopped supporting the game not long after release.

Interestingly though, the game lived on thanks to a surprisingly dedicated group of fans. “Call to Power II” was built with heavy mod support which gave fans of the game the opportunity to create their own variations. They later convinced Activision to give them access to the source code so they could release unofficial patches which continued for several years before ceasing in 2011.

Civilization III (2001)
Civilization III (2001) Firaxis Games

Civilization III (2001)

After five years and three games, the true sequel to “Civilization II” was released by Firaxis Games and published by Infogrames with Sid Meier serving as Creative Director with Jeff Briggs and Soren Johnson in the Lead Designer roles. “Civilization III” did not try to innovate with new features as much as it tried to improve upon the already established formulas by providing more options for diplomacy, alliances, trade and combat while improving both the user interface and world generation.

While the game is considered to be one of the best in the series, it was not all hugs and kisses by players when it was released.  Those that preferred sprawling empires found that their far away cities were subject to punishing corruption penalties. Many of the features introduced in “Alpha Centauri” were not carried over such as the ability to move groups of units. There were also numerous bugs at launch.

Firaxis quickly released a patch and followed up with the “Play the World” expansion approximately a year later. The expansion added eight new civilizations and online multiplayer. However, the multiplayer was poorly received though due to it being buggy and slow. This was eventually corrected with the “Conquests” expansion that also added even more civilizations, scenarios and government types.

Civilization IV (2005)
Civilization IV (2005) Firaxis Games

Civilization IV (2005)

“Civilization IV” is the first fully 3D entry in the “Civilization” series and is also the first to be published by 2K Games.  Once again, Sid Meier filled the role as Creative Director at Firaxis Games with Barry Caudill stepping into the Producer role and Soren Johnson returning as the Lead Designer.

The move to 3D was but one of several changes to the franchise which included a major overall to the interface, new abilities for the United Nations, units having a single stat to represent their strength and the ability to check the odds of winning a battle. Religion was also significantly expanded from simply building temples and cathedrals to featuring seven distinct theologies along with accompanying game mechanics for diplomacy, economics and technological advances.

The game also featured major benefits to the mod scene so that enterprising players could create their own maps, scenarios, rules, units and even tweak the AI. A Software Development Kit was released half a year after the full game that allowed major modification to the game.

Civilization Revolution (2008)
Civilization Revolution (2008) Firaxis Games

Civilization Revolution (2008)

The first dedicated console version of the series, “Civilization Revolution” put Sid Meier back in the Lead Design role for this PS3 and Xbox 360 release. This would eventually expand the Nintendo DS, iPad/iPhone and even the Windows Phone. A Wii version was planned as well, but ultimately scrapped due to costs.

The core gameplay mechanics were significantly altered to be console friendly including a shorter technology tree, smaller maps and the removal of the Worker unit to help reduce the amount of micromanagement. This led to games that only lasted around 4 hours at most versus the several hour affairs of the PC version.

Civilization IV: Colonization (2008)
Civilization IV: Colonization (2008) Firaxis Games

Civilization IV: Colonization (2008)

A few months after the release of “Revolution”, Firaxis Games decided to revisit the the original “Colonization” experiment with “Civilization IV: Colonization”. Design was led by H. Edward Piper with the “Civilization IV” engine powering another settling of the New World by European nations and colonial independence.

Once again, this led to some controversy as Variety reporter Ben Fritz took offense to the game’s setting and handling of historical topics and “inherent racism”. “But the idea that 2K and Firaxis and Sid Meier himself would make and release a game in the year 2008 that is not only about colonization, but celebrates it by having the player control the people doing the colonizing is truly mind boggling” the astounded journalist wrote at the time.

Firaxis Games President Steve Martin responded by stating, “For seventeen years the Civilization series has given people the opportunity to create their own history of the world. Colonization deals with a specific time in global history, and treats the events of that time with respect and care. As with all previous versions of Civilization, the game does not endorse any particular position or strategy - players can and should make their own moral judgments.”

Civilization V (2010)
Civilization V (2010) Firaxis Games

Civilization V (2010)

“Civilization V” is the biggest and most ambitious game in the series released yet. Meier returned as Creative Director once again with Jon Schafer, Ed Beach and Scott Lewis leading the design of the game. However, Firaxis also made some design decisions that greatly impacted gameplay.

The most notable decision was the restriction of only one unit per tile. This not only changed player behaviors but also caused a significant rewrite of the game’s AI. Another significant change once again restricted the player’s ability to create vast empires. This was done through the happiness mechanic in Civilization V” versus the corruption mechanic in “Civilization III”, however.

Due to the new game engine, there were notable subtractions as well including the religion and civic systems from “Civilization IV”. This was all eventually addressed through the release of the “Gods & Kings” and “Brave New World” expansion packs.

CivWorld (2011)
CivWorld (2011) Firaxis Games

CivWorld (2011)

“CivWorld” was Sid Meier’s experiment to turn the “Civilization” franchise into a massively multiplayer Facebook game. Naturally, combining “Facebook” and the storied franchise did not go as planned.

Unlike every other game in the series, “CivWorld” was a purely real-time strategy game and allowed players to work with and against one another. While it did enter open beta in July 2011, it never caught on and was officially shutdown in May 2013.

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