Fumbling through History: a Civ 5 game diary (Pt. 1)

I am a big fan of the Civilization series. I am also, if I’m honest, not that good at it. This is primarily through lack of pushing myself, if I continue to be honest: with Civilization 2 and Civilization 4 I mostly focused on building up cool empires and getting embroiled in fights or diplomatic tangles rather than exploring the game’s higher difficulty options. I’ve been working to address this in games of the lightweight but fun Civilization Revolution and the interesting new take on the series that is Civilization 5*. And as a byproduct, here’s the story of a recent game on a Very Large – Earth world map with the difficulty set to King.

(I’ll try not to ramble on as much as I normally do, because this was a long game. I’ll focus on the key points whilst also trying to keep the game’s narrative thread rolling!)

[* I’ve heard that the AI in Civ5 is considered pretty abysmal by the standards of 4x games, but shhhh. It’s probably smarter than me.]

Civ 5 - inauspicious beginnings


My early explorations indicate that I’m somewhere in northern Asia, which I think is historically appropriate for the great and glorious American Empire, led by famous King George Washington.

As is my usual approach with strategy games, I allow myself and my people to relax in the early game, following no particular approach. As their near-omniscient God Emperor I demand tithes of Oreos and organic cider (which demands rapid scaling-up of our society’s technological and economic base). Okay, okay: I send out scouts to explore the continent, establish a few more cities to secure a hold on luxury resources, and complete some city-state quests to establish useful alliances with them.

Eventually all my scouts are killed off by barbarians and I stop bothering to replace them; there are more useful things to devote a city’s build queue to. For example, painting murals of my neighbouring empires: the Persians somewhere to the south-east and the Ottomans to the south, both separated from me by the Consolidated Mountains of Asia (Civ‘s interpretation of the Himalayas and Caucasus mountains). There are also the French to the west: the game has actually started them in Europe, which is quite an impressive geographical feat.

Everything is going just fine. My usual early game policy of researching new technologies and building up my cities with nice new buildings is helping to shore up my society rather nicely. Of course, this means that I have relatively few military units defending me; just the obligatory one archer per city plus a few miscellaneous units acquired here and there.


The Ottoman Empire declares war on me. I ask why and am told that it’s nothing personal, it’s just that I’m weaker than them. I suppose it’s nice of them to be so upfront about it.

So, my first taste of non-barbarian blood! Fortunately for me even on King difficulty the AI is pretty poor at combat, whereas I am the king of optimal hex-based positioning in lightweight strategic games thanks to dozens of hours lost to forgotten relic Missionforce: Cyberstorm. Through some clever manoeuvring I thrash their armies without losing any of my units, and send the survivors packing. I decide not to pursue – I can fend off a large assault but I’ve not got the strength to take even one city from them.

My victory in this small conflict highlights an advantage and a weakness of the decision to disallow stacking in Civ 5. You’d struggle to pull off a trick like this in Civ 4, with its typically enormous stacks of armies lurking in the same square. Of course, in Civ 5 it’s also possible to capture a city without forcing ten times its population in soldiers through a fine mesh screen. You only need about twice a city’s population to do that, which saves on coffins and flags and nationalist propaganda.

With the Ottoman Wimpire licking its wounds I settle back into a comfortable pattern of building up my cities and establishing one or two more, again near valuable resources. I place one towards the northern edge of the continent, too, just in case I luck out later in the game and win some delicious Siberian oil.

After a while I see the French Empire roll into view; before now I’ve only seen individual scout units. It quickly becomes apparent that they’re already big and powerful and are merrily waging war on everyone they can find. For whatever reason they’re leaving me alone: possibly because there are a few city states forming a meat shield between us, or possibly because everyone in the world thinks I’m quite nice (as a total non-aggressor).

Neither state of affairs will last.

I also meet the German Empire not long before the French finish them off. They beg for help but I lack the armies to offer any. I guess it’s still a few centuries until I get a veto in the UN Security Council. I am, however, building up my forces: the French now own virtually all of Europe and Eurasia, have gobbled up the Middle East and are making fearsome inroads into Africa. It’s clearly a Domination victory they’re after, but I’m more concerned about preventing them from getting too powerful. Screw victory conditions!

It’s around this time it occurs to me that I’d quite like to write a Civ 5 game diary, and so I start taking notes. This leads to me realising that I tend to play the game reactively rather than proactively, thanks to not being a terribly focused player. This tends to be the case until a game takes form and I pursue a specific victory type. This means that I often fall behind at higher difficulties, but it does mean that Civ – and other 4X games – retain a lot of mystery in my mind, because I’m not playing a system of rules in an optimal way. Instead I’m just having fun and seeing what happens.

That said, I have a plan. When my Council of Learned Elders request details, I walk them through the general brief: fuck the French.

Civ 5 - some dude wearing a lovely frock

I, uh, didn't think to take any screenshots early on in the game, so here's a nice loading screen instead,


My plan is a little more specific than I previously indicated. I’m going to snatch two cities in the area where real-world Uzbekistan sort-of is and cut the French empire in two. If I can take those two cities and then successfully sue for peace, the French won’t be able to move troops between Europe and Africa easily. This will slow their march of conquest significantly and allow me and everyone else time to catch up. The problem is that they’re already technologically and numerically superior, with their frontline armies involving riflemen and trebuchets (on an aside, I love the oft-anachronistic makeup of Civ armies). I have crossbows, horsemen and catapults. This could end badly.

And yet, somehow, it doesn’t! I devote over twenty turns to steadily grinding down the defences of these two cities, desperately trying not to lose any of my precious armies. The French don’t reinforce them, with their forces presumably tied up in Africa where they’re fighting the Chinese (who have spread from the southern tip of the continent northwards, containing the Greeks along the west coast, obviously) having already finished off the Germans and gobbled up their territory. I lose a few armies in the end, but I take the first city after a lengthy struggle and the second falls soon after. Subsequently I manage to negotiate peace with France, who are still far mightier than me. Perhaps they don’t want to fight on yet another front – the Chinese, at this point, are still giving as good as they get.

Bizarrely, the nearby city state of Rio de Janeiro declares war on me. Um. I use the troops I took on the French with to gobble up these recalcitrant sods, but after doing so I discover that most of the other world leaders now despise me because I’m an aggressor. Apparently taking on the mightiest power in the world to try and stop them wiping everyone else out and capturing a city state who declared war on me makes me the bad guy!

Okay. So it kind of does. I just besieged three cities and probably killed tens of thousands of people. But this is the medieval era, folks. There are no nice people here. Just the plague-ridden and the dead.

Shhh. I know there are riflemen around. But I don’t have them yet, so it’s still the medieval era. This is historical science, dear reader.

I decide to run with the bad guy thing a little. Donning my leather jacket and hopping on a Harley, I lead my armies to victory over the formerly allied city-state Tyre and another city-state to the south-east of my empire – which, I hasten to add, also declared war on me first.


Over the last few dozen turns I’ve enjoyed some technological advances as well as windfalls of gold, meaning that my catapults are now upgraded to cannon and my foot infantry – previously rendered obsolete by knights – can now be upgraded to riflemen. Renaissance riflemen. Look, I don’t make this shit up. It’s all in the tech tree.

The upgrades are not before time: the Ottomans and Persians simultaneously declare war on me. This is not good. The bulk of my armies are now in the south-east, around that recently captured city-state, leaving me defenceless against the Ottomans – and there are an awful lot of Persian armies heading my way, too. I’m also concerned that the French will take advantage of the situation. I could easily find my budding empire obliterated.

No time for jokes, Doctor Jones. This is war. Real war.

I make a cup of tea to bolster my fortitude.

For now the Ottomans are after my new middle eastern holdings, whilst the Persians are going for the most recently taken city-state. Fortunately the French remain quiet for the time being. I despatch a number of my fastest units – knights – back through my empire, along the extensive network of roads I’ve built, to try and hold off the Ottoman empire in the Middle East. Meanwhile my cannon, protected by a line of infantry, eradicate over half of Persia’s total military power. Ultimately, however, I’m unable to stop their hordes of archers and pikemen from taking the former city-state.

And then something impossibly useful happens: the instant they capture the city they plead for peace, offering me huge amounts of gold and luxury resources. Presumably they can see themselves losing everything against me if they persist, and the AI doesn’t recognise how vulnerable I feel the south and west corners of my empire are. I accept, and immediately move all forces back to the middle east to battle the Ottomans. They’re on the verge of taking Rio de Janeiro, but their forces have foolishly split up to try and capture more cities as well. As reinforcements arrive I turn the tide, crushing their splintered forces, and push into their now small and frail-looking empire. With the bulk of their military spent I gobble up most of their cities, but at that point the unthinkable occurs. The French declare war on me.

Oh fuck.

Moving swiftly I negotiate peace with the Ottomans: as I’ve just captured their capital they’re receptive to this idea. As part of the settlement I demand one more city from them, plus some other concessions, leaving them just one city. They accept, and bizarrely enough their diplomatic stance changes completely. Now that they’re so thoroughly defanged they spend several hundred years being very friendly towards me.

The opportunistic Persians go to war again, seeking to snaffle up that last Ottoman holdout, and (again, after several hundred years) capture this last city. I keep the Ottomans going as long as possible with gifts of gold and resources in order to distract the Persians… but I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s a minor footnote of the late industrial era. Right now I have a tide of blue to fend off.

Civ 5 - Genoa

Because I'm short of screenshots for part one, here's a later-game snap of Genoa. Hi, Genoa!

I pull my cannon, knights and other troops out of the former Ottoman empire: French troops have already moved to surround my western-most city (Munich, of course – it’s a hundred miles east of the Suez canal don’t you know).

My old pal Napoleon has advanced and powerful French Foreign Legion units: my best are Minutemen. These are special units for the French and American empires respectively; the Foreign Legion is a replacement for the powerful Infantry unit that enjoys a further 20% bonus outside of friendly territory, whereas the Minutemen is a replacement for the Musketman which can simply move faster over rough terrain. Since I’m defending developed areas that advantage offers little. In terms of crunching numbers, a vanilla Foreign Legion against a vanilla Minuteman unit is combat strength 43 against 16. Those are very poor odds indeed.

Fortunately my cannon do a great job of battering the invaders before my melee troops finish them off. This game has given me an immense respect for the usefulness of ranged weaponry. I lose a few units but once again the French lose everything. I’m under no illusions that this is all they have, though; a dozen units does not a real army make. Anticipating further unpleasantness I set up defensive lines across the not-Suez canal (the source of the last attack) and another pointing toward Eurasia and the French heartlands (they’ve colonised the entirety of Western and Eastern Europe now, from the British Isles to Scandinavia). I figure that the majority of French forces are in Africa fighting China, but all their new troops will come from Europe. The French are puppeting rather than annexing all captured cities, so it seems a safe bet.

For those unfamiliar with Civ 5, a puppet city gives you extra cash, research and culture, but sets its own build queue and doesn’t build units. Puppets are essential for large empires; Civ 5 balances out sprawling empires built on conquest with exponentially increasing levels of unhappiness and unrest, rather than Civ 4’s mechanic of larger empires simply costing more. Essentially the French are using their conquered territories to enrich themselves and storm ahead scientifically, whilst using their homeland to continually pump out troops.

I realise that this will mean that French assaults will eventually be coming from Europe rather than Africa, and that this will be much harder to defend against. I have two non-mutually exclusive options: I can try and establish a peace treaty, and I can try to assert myself as an economic, technological and military powerhouse to rival the French.

Accepting a peace treaty from a weaker rival who stabbed them in the back once already is probably not on France’s agenda, so I guess I’m committed to the second option.

[Tune in for Part 2 later in the week, as the beleaguered American Empire figures out how the hell it’s going to ever be bigger, tougher and smarter than the French, and decides just how it’s going to try and win the game. The world. The… history. Oh, Civilization.]