The history of Civilization

Carl-Magnus Dumell

Case study for the course history of computer and video games at Aalto University, Media Lab (

November 29th, 2001

”It's a big world. Go play in it.”
- unknown author in The Art of Freeciv

Timeline of the game Civilization

Civilization - the board game

In 1980 the toy manufacturer Avalon Hill started selling a board game titled Civilization that they licensed from a company called Hartland Trefoil.

Civilization is played on a map showing an area surrounding the Mediterranean. A group of people, preferably 7 or 8, start out with one population token and take turns moving around and expanding their empire and acquiring more population units and wealth. Using trading cards symbolizing commodities such as iron, silver and ivory players can trade with each other. Players can also run into problems like famine and volcanoes and achieve civilization advances ranging from pottery to philosophy and democracy.

There is also a Brittish version of Civilization available that is slightly different, manufactured by another company that licensed the rights directly from Trefoil and a French version that is also different from the Avalon Hill version.

1981 Utopia

Don Daglow made a fairly original two-player game for Intellivision in 1981. You and your opponent each have an island to rule. You can be an agressive and militaristic dictator go to war against the other island or you can peacefully manage food, housing and industries that determine the welfare of your people but you can not manage natural disasters. And if welfare drop some people may turn into rebels. The score is determined by a number of factors that make up the welfare on your island.

The game was pushed by a modest marketing campaing but still sold some 250.000 copies witch made it one of the more successfull Intellivision games.

Utopia is sometimes referred to as “Civilization 0.5”.

1982 Hamurabi

A simple Basic program with no graphics called Hamurabi is sometimes mentioned as a successor to Civilization. For example Walter Bright, the maker of Empire, names Hamurabi as a strong influense and a game he tried to develope further himself. The game is named after the ancient king of Babylonia who expanded his empire, administred it well and created one of the first codes of law in history.

In Hamurabi you, trough the text interface, dispense food, direct farming and buy and sell land as needed to support the population in your kingdom. The currency is grain and it is measured in “bushels”.

Who originally made Hamurabi is unclear but the source code has been published in books and different versions of it circulates.

1991 Civilization (Amiga/DOS/Mac/ST)

The first version of Sid Meier’s Civilization appeared for the Amiga in 1991 and shortly thereafter a DOS version was introduced. The following year it was ported to Macintosh and in 1993 a version was released for Atari ST as well as an improved version for the Amiga.

1993 Civilization (Win/SNES)

Still one year later a Windows version (for Win 3.1) was released as well as a version for SNES: The game itself remained unchanged although the interface was improved somewhat.

The game has ranked high in a number of “greates games of all time” polls by different magazines since its release.

1995 Advanced Civilization

Avalon Hill, the North American maker of the Civilization board game release a computer version of the game with almost identical rules and game area compared to the board version. Avalon Hill also took legal action against MicroProse and Sid Meier for their version.

1995 CivNet

The original Sid Meier’s Civilization did not have multi player capability but in 1995 MicroProse relased a version of Civilization called CivNet that was multi player enabled. The game did not become popular and buyers felt cheated when MicroProse release Civilization 2 only a few months later.

1996 Freeciv

Freeciv started as a free Civ 1 clone by a few university students in Denmark in 1995. Initial versions where based on the XPilot open source client/server game architecture. The first playable version became available in 1996. Development has continues ever since as a popular open source project.

1996 Civilization II

Sid Meier’s Civilization II is a visually improved version of the original game. And not much more. Still, this was a welcome improvement since the original game was mostly about the game play while the visual aspects had been given little attention.

1997 Great Nations

A team of Finns developed a shareware clone of Civilization, visually very close to the original Sid Meier’s Civilization. It seems, however, that the game has faded away as the last update seems to have been done in the spring of 2000 and the web address no longer functions.

UPDATE: It seems Toni Wilen of WinUAE fame was involved. The last update was in 2003 and it is available for free for Amiga, Windows and Linux.

1999 Alpha Centauri

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is an unofficial sequel to Civilization, functioning very much in the same way as Civilization but with better graphics and located on another planet in the future.

1999 Call to Power

Activision made use of their Civilization license from Avalon Hill by releasing “Civilization - Call to Power” in 1999. Activision, in turn, licensed the rights to this game to Loki who made a Linux version of it. CTP is remarkably similar to Civilization 2 although it has slightly larger icons and contains a few added details.

2000 Call to Power 2

In their deal with Avalon Hill, Activision was given the right to make one Civilization game and one sequel. The sequel came in 2000 and was called “Civilization – Call to Power 2”.

2001 Civilization 3

Ten years after the first Sid Meier’s Civilization the third version of the game was released in the autumn of 2001. With the exception of the graphics and sound, Civilization 3 is almost identical to the first version. But the graphics and sound IS a major exception, turning the original 2 MB game into a multimedia spectacle that fills a whole cd-rom.

The legal rights to Civilization

Avalon Hill, the maker of the Civilization board game, felt they had been ripped of by MicroProse and Sid Meier. In order to punish MicroProse, Avalon Hill licensed the rights to their board game to Activision (covering one game and one sequel), thereby allowing Activision to make a version of Civilization that would compete with Sid Meier’s. The Activision version is called “Civilization – Call to Power” and is very similar to Sid Meier’s.

Since Civilization was one of MircoProse’ most successfull games they took a radical step to protect their product: MicroProse bought Hartland Trefoil, the original designer of the Civilization board game, thereby ending any claims Avalon Hill had to the title.

Avalon Hill lost all rights to the game and 400.000 USD in legal fees. This broke the company and Avalon Hill was taken over by another toy company: Hasbro. Ironically, MicroProse later run into financial troubles of their own and where also acquired by Hasbro, creating one big happy Civilization family…

Hasbro had earlier taken over the legendary game company Atari.

The ideology of Civilization

Civilization is both a simulation and a strategy game. Simulation is about realism and rules. Using a set of rules the game creates an environment in with you play.

Obviously the game has to rely on a much simplified set of rules than reality in all of its complexity. My strongest criticism against Civilization is that the fixed set of rules are biased and reflect a conservative American interpretation of the world. Cities have to be equipped with temples and cathedrals to make people prosperous, the discovery of communism enables the building of police stations and so on. Wall Street Journal is said to once have pointed out the fact that in Civilization market economy and low taxation leads to growth. Although I must admit that pollution as a result of industrialization is emphasized in a very un-American way.

Playing Civilization

You begin a team of prehistoric settlers, represented by an image of a man with a shovel in the middle of a map. On this map the terrain is described by icons representing forests, rivers, plains, sea, hills, mountains and so on. At first most of the map is black but as you move the unit around on the map more and more is revealed.

A settler can found a city and the city can then build a new unit (settler, worker, soldier and so on) that can be moved around on the map or a city improvement (aqueduct, library, police station, airport and so on). Depending on the resources in the area surrounding the city will grow. The more cities and people you have the faster a city can produce new units and improvements and the faster your scientists will discover new ”knowledge” (like writing, mathematics, banking, metallurgy, chemistry and so on). Discovering new knowledge allows you to build new types of units and city improvements (literature allows the building of libraries witch in turn speeds up your civilizations ability to discover new knowledge),.

When a city has been established the surrounding land can be developed by placing workers at a specific spot and choosing what you want it to do. Workers can build roads that improve productivity and units ability to move, irrigation that helps prevent famine in a city, build mines that creates more income and thereby higher tax incomes and so on.

You start out 4000 B.C. and the goal is to be advanced enough to build a space ship by the year 2000 a.D. On the map where you play there are also competing civilizations controlled by the computer. If you play nice you can peacefully co-exist with them and prosper from trade and co-operation with them. You can also spend resources on military units and go to war with them. Both strategies can lead to success. At the end of the game you are rated based on how happy your population is, how large your empire is, how many people belong to your empire and how well educated they are (did you build libraries and universities?), how scientifically advanced you are and how large the cultural influence of you empire was.

The fact that there is no one right strategy, that you can use more than one strategy to achieve success, is one of Civilizations’ strong sides.

Another strength is the compromise between complexity and simplicity. The game covers 6.000 years of human civilization and you can learn to play it in a few minutes. Sid Meier said in an interview that NATO Division Commander from 1985 failed because it was too complicated and he learned the importance of making games easy to play. Many things are obvious and you don’t have to learn everything at once. In the beginning you can let the computer take care of almost all the details and ss you play and learn more about how the game works you can get more and more involved in these details. If you rely on automation then the computer will do a good job but never a great job, to get something done really well you have to do it yourself. And whenever you need to make a decision there are AI advisors that will suggest what you should do. These advisors always give good advice but they never give great advice, you have to figure out the great decisions yourself.

Sid Meier

Sid Meier co-founded MicroProse with Bill Stealey in 1982.

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