Twenty years ago today in 1996, Civilization II introduced huge improvements to Sid Meiers’ venerable Civilization which had come out in 1991. And for fans, the five year wait was worth it.
Civilization presented a simple thesis — what if you had the tools to build a civilization from the ground up and watch it grow, fight to survive, develop the things it needed to survive, or be destroyed by unfriendly neighbors. It was an amazing digital toy box filled with everything from vast improvement trees featuring achievements such as writing and bronze working to nuclear weapons as your civilization slowly advanced through time to become the pinnacle of humanity.
The first game featured a top-down view of Earth with square tile-based movement. Players could decide whether to be randomly placed somewhere on a randomly generated planet and hope for the best in competition with up to six other civs (from a list of 14). Or, they could even choose to go with a historical Earth setting and begin where their chosen civilization started. So if you wanted to be the Americans, you’d start in North America. You’d also get to be an immortal Abraham Lincoln who would represent you as the leader of the American civ. Or Genghis Khan if you chose to be the Mongols instead. And so on.
From settling your first city and developing your earliest techs like discovering the wheel or writing, players would get to chart the success and disposition of their chosen civ however they chose. I usually took on the research path, but inevitably, you’ll probably run into more belligerent neighbors so as the old adage goes, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
You could also build other cities as your territory grows and as you can produce more settlers. Wonders can also be built by any civilization so if you want the Mongols to build the Pyramids, that’s all on you. But it also goes much deeper than that. Players could research different methods of governing — do you stay a despot or change your government to something else like a monarchy, communism, or democracy. Each had its own pluses and minuses and your civilization’s rise or fall could depend on how heavy handed or how open you decided to be. Changing a government was pretty painless though as the “revolution” for change took place, your civ came to a standstill for a time until it was all over.
The tech trees that you could also develop were very deep with a number of steps that needed to be complete before moving on to more advanced stuff. You couldn’t just build nukes right off the bat, or tanks. You had to take a multidisciplinary approach to investigating your way through each of the different pieces needed to get there. Fortunately for you, the game starts at 4000 BC providing plenty of time (though early on, it skips through centuries as your civ slowly learns whatever advancement you have them on) and can end in a variety of ways.
For peaceful players looking for a less violent resolution, one of the goals is to build a space race to construct a colony ship and send it to Alpha Centuari. Or you could totally wipe out every other civilization if that’s your plan. There were also different difficulty levels to determine just how brutal you want your challenge to be and a number of “rankings” tallied at the end of the game, win or lose, to show how well you did.
Situations involving anachronistic injections of invention added even more fun unpredictability to the game depending on your difficulty level and the choices you’ve made. Running into a stunted civilization still using chariots while you have armored cars? That was entirely possible.
Civilization II continued this fine tradition with a number of big improvements especially in the visual arena. Unlike the first game, Sid Meier entrusted the baton to Brian Reynolds and Jeff Briggs whose team took the foundation of the first game and tweaked in a host of new features. It took on a colorful, isometric tilt to the map, added in hp for units, a council for advice with each member representing a piece of your government from technology to diplomacy, a host of new units, and an improved AI. Adopting the CD-ROM format also allowed the game to use a variety of “multimedia” focused additions like live actors and comedic clips for your council and footage for the “Wonders of the World”.
Like its predecessor, it came with a beefy manual that clocked in at around 200 pages (the Civ I manual clocks in at nearly 130 pages with its own index). Unlike the first manual, though, it concentrated mainly on the mechanics. Civ I’s manual had a nice section covering each of the major periods with some history overview such as describing the Industrial Age. But like the first game, Civ II has an in-game “help” system called the Civilopedia packed with historical and game related info. This ongoing feature would create something of a learning experience for anyone curious enough to “mess” with history. Even going from advancement to advancement demonstrated how interconnected different aspects of human knowledge ultimately contributed to something greater. It’s one of my favorite parts of the series.
With as much going in, there were also a few ideas that didn’t quite make the final grade. According to the designer notes in the manual, one of those ideas was to create a full-screen tactical view for combat which was ultimately nixed in favor of a “strength bar” system instead to show battle damage.
There are also bound to be amazing moments created by players with a game this open to experimentation. For example, there’s a thread on Reddit from a player named Lycerius from a few years back who has kept the same game of Civilization II running for ten years. The results was a game that has extended into the year 3991 AD, three civilizations (the Celts, the Americans, and the Vikings) were all that were left, the world was rendered a slowly dying wasteland thanks to melting the ice caps with repeated nukes against each other, and all three powers were engaged in a war that has lasted 1700 years. To quote Lycerius’ post:
The military stalemate is air tight. The post-late game in civ II is perfectly balanced because all remaining nations already have all the technologies so there is no advantage. And there are so many units at once on the map that you could lose 20 tank units and not have your lines dented because you have a constant stream moving to the front. This also means that cities are not only tiny towns full of starving people, but that you can never improve the city. “So you want a granary so you can eat? Sorry; I have to build another tank instead. Maybe next time.”
In the post, Lycerius noted that they want to end the war sometime in the next few years but there hasn’t been any word on what kind of headway they were able to make. As they made clear from the start, they have a life, it’s just that they’ve kept this particular game going over so many years off and on turning it into an incredible simulation. Sid Meier had even commented on it. There’s also a subreddit created to track it and invite others to share their own stories with links on how to download the war and give it a shot yourself, though updates have been pretty scarce.
Civilization II was a huge step forward for the series incorporating polish, new tech, and keeping the fun balance of the first game without dramatically changing the magic. If anything else, it made a lot of what was great about the first game even better with a timely update. It would eventually be re-released as a multiplayer version and even be ported to the Sony PlayStation in 1998. In 2002, it would be re-released for Windows XP and 2000 platforms.
In addition to the base game in 1996, three expansion packs followed introducing new scenarios to play through ranging from the Civil War to a World War in 1979. A number of fan made scenarios would also be included with the packs. Even today, there are tons of scenarios available for Civ 2 ready to download and a lot of tools available for players to continue making more maintaining its phenomenal longevity.
Microprose may be no more, but Sid Meier and the simulation he had set into motion continue to engross and entertain players decades later. For many, 1996 was a magical year when it came to games in general. And for many of those players, one of the biggest reasons why is because of Civilization II helping to point the way forward for the dynasty.