Civilization's Past and Future, As Told By Its Lead Designers

Civilization’s Past and Future, As Told By Its Lead Designers

Sid Meier’s Civilization turned 30 years old in 2021, which might make your bones hurt (it sure hurt mine). Every main entry in the series has had a new designer at the helm, starting with Sid himself all the way back in 1991, and we were fortunate enough to talk to four of them: Soren Johnson, who worked on Civilization 3 and headed up Civilization 4, Jon Shafer, who took the lead on Civilization 5, Ed Beach, the lead designer on Civilization 6, and Anton Strenger, who was in the driver’s seat for Civ 6’s Rise and Fall and New Frontier DLCs – and while we couldn’t get a word out of him about it, seems like the heir apparent to take over for Civilization 7, whenever that might happen.

With its first-ever very direct competitor – Amplitude’s Humankind – released last year, Civilization is in a position it’s never been in before. Johnson and Shafer have each made their own, independent games recently that shake up the Civ formula with Old World and At the Gates. Games that take a more simulationist, less board game-like approach to history such as Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis from Paradox Interactive have stolen away hundreds of hours I would have spent playing Civ a decade ago. So what is Civ’s place in modern strategy gaming, and how should it evolve to keep its throne?

Humble Beginnings

Before any of these guys were Civilization designers, though, they were Civilization players like us. Their journeys with the series began at different points and they took different things from it, but all of them remembered their first experience leading a nation from the stone age to the space age.

Johnson: “It was my very first week of college. I went to the college bookstore and they had a very small game section… I probably only played through Civ 1 maybe two or three times, but I do remember one game where the space race actually worked. I happened to be neck-and-neck with the AI and that was a great finish. I don’t think I realized at the time how rare that can be, so it was nice to have that experience.”

Shafer: “I hadn’t heard of Civ until a math teacher introduced it to me in 10th grade. He had a pirated copy of Civ 2 which he shared with his students. [laughs] A bit dubious, but that was my first experience and I fell in love with it from there. Because I’d always loved history and I love maps. So the fact that there was a game where you could just play an infinite number of worlds, it wasn’t just one, fixed map that you solved like a puzzle, it was something that could keep you playing forever.”

Beach: “I did not play until Civ 3, and then I became mega involved because I was working for a game studio down the street from Firaxis, Breakaway Games, and they were a subcontractor that took the lead on doing the Civ 3: Conquests expansion pack. And I was the scenario designer for three of the scenarios. One thing I really remember about Civ 3 is you had to be really, really careful about grabbing up all the space near you because the AI was just relentless in sending out settlers and finding all the little gaps you left between your cities.”

Strenger: “[I started with] Civ 3 as well. It was late middle school/early high school. So sometimes my parents would go on week-long vacations and I would stay at a friend’s house. And one of the things we really liked to do was play hot seat Civ 3 [where multiple players take turns playing the same civilization]. And we never finished a game because it was a school night, it’d be 2 a.m. and we’d be like, ‘Oh God, we gotta go to bed. We have band practice in the morning.'”

Making History

Of course, the four eventually became game developers themselves, and once they made the jump, were able to work on the franchise that made such an impact on them in their youth. The four made a lasting impact on the Civ franchise. Johnson introduced the idea that culture spreads your borders. Shafer was responsible for the divisive switch to one military unit per tile, making combat more of a tactics game. Working on Civ 6, Beach and Strenger worked on “unpacking cities” with the district system. But it’s game development, and things are bound to go wrong; sometimes you regret decisions you made, and sometimes you regret things you weren’t able to try at all. What would the Civ veterans have done differently if they had another shot?

Johnson: “It sounds kinda bad to say I’m pretty happy with Civ 4. Looking back now, I don’t think I could have done much differently or better in the situation. But there are a lot of things I would do differently [now], otherwise, I wouldn’t have made Old World. There needed to be some serious attempt to prevent the explosion of units and things to do that these games have, and also a way to try to make the game a reasonable length. I think that Civ is generally too long. And I don’t think there’s a good way to solve that problem. If you start jumping too fast through history, it doesn’t feel like Civ, right?

“So the orders system [in Old World, which limits how many units you can move per turn] was my way of trying to fix the problem of too many units to move. In Civ, your attention is constantly being moved from place to place since you’ve got to move every unit every turn. You’re kind of being led around the map by your nose. I also really soured on the bargaining table. I don’t really think that’s the best way to do diplomacy since it’s super, super transactional. Where I think diplomacy should be very event-based.”

Shafer: “With Civ 5, we made the big jump from stack combat to one unit per tile. And there are pluses and minuses with that approach, of course. I think it’s a more fun system than stack combat, but it’s certainly been more difficult for the AI to contemplate what to do with it to give the player a challenge. It also affects the pacing and the economic side of the game. I don’t think it’s clearly a net negative, I think it’s a net positive, but it definitely has certain aspects to it that make the design more challenging.”

Beach: “[In Civilization 6] we felt like the adjacency bonuses probably got a little over-complicated several expansions in, and some civilizations had lists of what their bonuses could be that got too long. So I don’t think we’ve perfected that formula. Some things lead to a little bit too much micromanagement, too many clicks are required. So trade routes, you have to renew them quite often. So we’ve looked really hard at Civ 6 and poked at it… and we’re trying to do that sort of self-assessment pretty often around here. So there are things from Civ 6 we’re really going to want to look at as we go down the road.”

Strenger: “I’d say trade routes…. there were some nuances that I either tried and didn’t get in, or they did get in and didn’t land. For the former, I was enamored with the idea of trade routes carrying resources. So you’d have a trade route going from London to Paris and you would put iron or horses on it. So it was a way to use an extra luxury – you could throw it onto a trade route and it would get you some income. The tricky part became, that was an extra layer of micromanagement on top of the trade routes, which already had a lot.

“Something that did get in was the idea of trade ranges and trading posts. So I originally thought about the trade route game as kind of a second layer of expansion. Religion is a great example of this. Even when you’ve filled in the continent, you can still expand with your missionaries and flip cities to your side. And trade routes were meant to be the same thing, where each trade route gives you a trading post, and that acts as a repeater node to extend your range. But really, by the end of the game, it just became that giant list where [you only care about] what’s going to get me the most gold?”

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Golden Age

Despite all the challenges of game development, sometimes a plan just comes together beautifully. Maybe even better than you expected. So, on the flip side, we gave each designer an opportunity to brag. Looking back at the footprints they had left in Civilization as a series, what were they most proud of?

Johnson: “I kind of came up with the idea that culture and borders should be synonymous. That they’re a reflection of the sphere of influence and cultural power of your nation. One other thing I’d point out is the transparency we adopted in Civ 4. The way you go into diplomacy and see, they’re angry with me. Why are they angry with me? You mouse over and it tells you a full breakdown of all the different factors. Games like Crusader Kings kind of descend from being able to look at something like that.”

Shafer: “One of the things I’m really proud of with [the one unit per tile] change is how much we put more of the gameplay on the map. You spend a lot of time thinking about the individual tiles and the relationships between them. And this is something they carried further in Civ 6 with how city development works.”
Beach: “I really feel good about the way Civ 6 emphasized playing the map and how almost every single tile out there has some significance to you. It’s either a great choke point to hold off your enemies, or it’s a great place to nestle your campus or your holy site up against mountains, or a cluster of districts with great adjacency bonuses, or the perfect spot with all the right conditions to build a world wonder.”

Strenger: “It’s kind of a minor feature, but Rise and Fall for Civilization 6 was the first expansion I was a lead on and one of my pet features for that was the historic moment system. You know, when you build your first boat or make your first airplane, we have this illustrated moment that goes on this timeline… it’s a really cool feel for feeding that player narrative without being intrusive. And it’s really cool to finish a game and look back at it and see all of the things that happened in what year, and the order they happened in.”

A Lasting Legacy

Perhaps the most relevant question of all might be, what is Civ in 2022? Where does it stand in the strategy world? Is it still the king? Is it a stagnant empire facing decline? Johnson and Shafer, having moved on from the series, each had some thoughts.

Johnson: “I feel like Civilization is the Saturday Night Live of strategy games. If that analogy makes sense? Because it’s not going anywhere. SNL has its ups and its downs, but it’s an institution. And people don’t even necessarily go out of their way to praise it because it’s just such a presence, right? And it’s a nursery for talent. A lot of people have gone through the Civilization series and then gone on to do other things. And I’m sure that will continue to happen. It’s something people count on. It’s always going to be pretty good. It’s hard to imagine the strategy space without Civ.”

“I feel like Civilization is the Saturday Night Live of strategy games.”


Shafer: “Civ is the history strategy game. There are certainly other games that could claim that. But given that Civ is 30 years old, and for many players it’s the first historical strategy game they’ve ever played, and many never get deeper than that… I think the turn-based format makes it very approachable. Almost everybody has played chess, so it’s very easy to wrap your head around. And then it grows in complexity. And I think that’s a very unique selling point compared to other strategy games. You start from a very simple situation. It’s very easy to jump into.

“It definitely has its rough edges. It’s getting to be kind of an older design. It straddles this line between being a history simulation, giving you the experience of playing through history, but it’s also a board game. It sits somewhere in-between. And I think that is both a challenge to overcome, but also it’s part of what makes the game appeal to so many players. Especially people who don’t play other strategy games. So I think its place now is what it’s always been: the default history strategy game.”

Dawn of a New Era

Whether you think Civilization is still the best historical strategy series out there or its golden age is long past, it’s clear that it will need to evolve, as all long-standing series do, if it’s going to last another 30 years. Where do the four designers think the tried-and-true formula has the most space to grow?

Johnson: “[Paradox games, such as Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis] are kind of the most interesting challengers to Civ in a lot of ways. You’ll hear a lot of Paradox players feel like they aged out of Civ. And I find that interesting because even though they look similar, I can’t really connect with Paradox games the way I would with a Civ game. Because in a lot of ways [Paradox games] are not really games. They’re simulations. And I think the people working on Civ now are going to have to make a decision on how they’re going to approach the people who are being sucked out of Civ toward those types of games.”

Shafer: “It’s definitely in terms of characters. I think this is something a lot of strategy games have moved toward in the last five or ten years. I think it will be a bit challenging to provide specific numbers and personality traits and those sorts of things to historical figures. It’s something that you can’t get right. History is such a nuanced topic that is changing all the time – our understanding of history. And the way games intersect with that has evolved dramatically even since I worked on Civ 5. I think exploring characters and their relationships, and the political factors behind societies and civilizations… that’s probably the next frontier.”

Beach: “One challenge we have right now is that our audience has diversified and broadened. We now reach large player bases in countries where Civ 2 and 3 didn’t have a lot of representation like Asia and South America. So in the last five or ten years, we’ve been trying to broaden our awareness of as many different cultures and different leaders as we can get into the game. I think that’s a good touchstone for where we need to evolve. So putting Gran Colombia in for the New Frontier Pass and having the Venezuelan community respond positively to that, and we had a similar situation in Civ 5 when we first put Poland into the game. If we’re going to continue to be a worldwide product that has great support with all these different communities and cultures, that’s something we need to do really, really well.”

“So in the last five or ten years, we’ve been trying to broaden our awareness of as many different cultures and different leaders as we can get into the game.”


Strenger: “I think diplomacy and the other leaders are, to me, it’s my white whale for design. I’m like, there has to be a better way to do this. Because I kind of get frustrated when I’m playing single player. I feel like we’ve added rich personalities and abilities to counter against, but the other leaders still always feel like obstacles. I’m going to have to conquer you. So I feel like there’s a richness to player-leader dynamics [playing against the AI] that could be explored. In multiplayer games, you have these text only non-aggression pacts and all the social richness like that. And how do we tap into some of that, like, sitting around the table with a board game dynamic, and put that into the [AI leaders] a bit more formally? That’s something that’s always been fascinating to me.”

Alternate Worlds

Beach and Strenger are both still at Firaxis and still attached to the franchise, so there’s an almost sure shot that they’ll both shape the future of the series in some way. But we wanted to know, hypothetically, what Soren Johnson’s Civilization 7 or Jon Shafer’s Civilization 7 might look like. No holds barred: if they were given complete creative freedom and didn’t have to answer to anyone, what kind of game would they make?

Johnson: “So I probably would be a pretty bad choice for that because I don’t think I would be maximizing shareholder value. [laughs] Because I would want to do something really different. I would maybe try to get away from tiles and go to a region system. And find a way to let the game play a lot faster. So it’s less about fiddling with tiles, more about playing with diplomacy and the resource system and doing interesting things with technology.”

Shafer: “We would definitely do a lot with characters. Like I said, I think that’s where there’s a lot of fertile ground to explore. I would love to just chop off the second half of the game. That would be so amazing. It’s always so hard to make that second half challenging and dynamic. 4X games are so much about momentum. But nailing that pacing where you’re strong enough to succeed but not too strong to make the game too easy and boring for yourself, it’s just so difficult. So if I had complete control and didn’t have to worry about what anybody thought, I would just remove the second half… but at that point, is it really Civ anymore? Maybe not. So maybe the right answer is to step back and try to do things in a simpler way, and focus on the [player] decisions that matter the most.”

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Time Stamp: Jul 18, 2022