Life Lessons I Learned from “Civilization”

I promised in an earlier post to enumerate the life lessons I’ve learned from my obsession with Sid Meier’s Civilization V. To summarize: Civ V begins at 5,000 BC, allows you to research everything from pottery to particle physics, found religions, choose social policies and ideologies, engage in diplomacy and war, build wonders, earn great prophets, scientists, generals, admirals, engineers, and artists, and asks if you can “Build a Civilization to stand the test of time?” No pressure. Quite honestly, a game so complex that it not only allows you to, as Spain, use an inquisitor to remove a heretical religion from one of your cities, but then rewards with you with an achievement titled “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition” cannot be summed up in a Wikipedia description.  (Click here for Wikipedia description.)   Civilization, like life, must be experienced.

For the layman, you choose a civilization represented by a leader (Augustus for Rome, Elizabeth I for England, etc.). Each Civ has a Unique Ability (e.g. England gets naval bonuses), and either special units (Legions for Rome), a special building (Temple Pyramids for the Maya), or land improvements (Chateaus for France) that all confer special benefits that will affect your Civ and style of play. There are five ways to win: Cultural (make yours the dominant world culture, AKA “wear my blue jeans”), Diplomatic (be elected World Leader, AKA Money, Splitting, Soldiers, Spies), Science (bugger off to colonize another planet), Domination (capture every Capital while retaining your original), and Time (score-based, ominously ending in 2050).

So, after over 1,600 hours of play, what has Civilization ever done for me? (Aside from deepening my respect for James Burke.) Here’s a quick run-down, and it’s in no way complete.

1) “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

This quote, ascribed to Eisenhower, and which you will find in-game upon completing the Pentagon World Wonder, best sums up both my experience of the game and life in general. Did you want to play as cultured, wealthy, wonder-building France? Too bad. You spawned next to Attila the Hun, and if you don’t arm up and wipe him out he’ll be the bane of your existence. That’s if you continue to exist after he comes at you. And he will. Or perhaps you went with Shaka Zulu, warmonger par excellence, sine qua non, and other fancy phrases. You rushed up the tech tree to find iron to make your Impi warriors, and oh, The Shoshone grabbed up all the land with iron and built the Great Wall! Or maybe you just warred yourself to the point where no one will trade with you, your people are starving, unhappy, not making science, you’re broke, rebels are tearing up your land and attacking your capital and you’re so culturally impoverished that you’re 30 turns away from any policy that might settle things down. And now the Shoshone have nukes.

Point is, listen to the man who planned D-Day, the biggest plan ever planned in the history of planning. Going into anything with a strategy in mind is great, but you have to be able to adapt. For that you need infrastructure and logistics. There is an old axiom that goes “Amateurs speak of strategy, while professionals speak of logistics.” Ever read Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars? It’s awesome. About two-thirds are concerned with grain and supply lines. That may not  be as exciting as the battles of wit and war, but having the ability to sustain your Civ, to produce that which is necessary, pin down where it needs to go, and get it there in time is the key to success in life, love, war and Civ.

2) Bread and Circuses

This goes hand in glove with the above. Happy, healthy citizens produce more food, science, production, money, culture…and more citizens to do the same! Pay attention to them! An unhappy empire will weaken your military and defenses, leave you broke, your people illiterate, they will starve and revolt, and then you’re playing The French Revolution and not Civilization. There’s a story that Augustus Caesar, after becoming “First Citizen”, wondered why tax revenue was down and production so poor. A census showed that people weren’t marrying, and so there was a population drop thus less taxable citizens. So he passed a law enforcing a tax on unmarried men and women. Marriage rates went up, but the population didn’t increase. People were marrying to avoid the tax, but not having children. So he taxed childless married couples. People started having kids. Tax revenue and production went up. City of brick became a city of marble…you know the rest.

Keep your people fed and happy and making more productive citizens! Have you ever skipped lunch at work and then been miserable and gotten less done the rest of the day? Or maybe you missed your morning coffee (Civ speak: Luxury Resource), had a headache by 11 am and picked a fight with a friend for no good reason? As in life, so in Civilization. If that means postponing your planned invasion of Warsaw a few turns til things settle down, paying off a City State with a desirable luxury, or building a Colosseum when you really want to get started on that Wonder before someone else snaps it up, it’s worth it in the end. You’ll get that Wonder faster, your war will go better, you’ll gain a City State ally in the World Congress and you have more happy productive people.  There’s a possible political angle here, but I’ll just hope you connect the dots properly (no they don’t form a picture of Margret Thatcher).

3) Diplomacy is bloodless war, and war is bloody diplomacy

Backstabbing, a truth in life and the quest for world domination. It’s great to have allies and friendships, but like each individual you know, every leader in Civ has a personality and an agenda. Some are coy and difficult (Augustus!), some are plain-dealers (Washington — voice acted by Bill Clinton, I think), some will try to win you with their wiles then wait for you to show a hint of weakness and pounce (so looking at you Dido of Carthage!).  Allies and friends are great in the game. They’ll offer you better trades, engage in research agreements, go to war with you against a global menace (Assyria you are a cancer that must be eradicated, unless I’m playing as you), defend you, support your proposals, but they want to win just as much as you do. It is a game after all. If your total BFF from turn 25 sees you passing them on the scoreboard by turn 250, dude, they’re coming for you. Be prepared and then wipe them out after they declare war on you. Liberate a city they’ve conquered. You’ll look like the good guy!

So bear in mind, that gaining votes in the World Congress (in which you split, bribe and bully your way to being elected World Leader), building Wonders, and generally out-shining everybody in every way is the object, the more you shine the more hate you’re going to attract. It’s a long game, keep your defenses up, your treasury full, your spies busy, help out those who are down, take the bigger guys down a peg…you’ll do just fine.

4) Punch one class above your rank

Here we will talk about what people truly love: WAAAAAR!  Come on. Why pick Rome or Germany or the Zulu if you didn’t want this? Did you play as Japan just because Samurai also make fishing boats? I don’t think so. Why do you watch Patton once a year religiously? But even if you didn’t set out to play as a Dalek and Exterminate! War will come as invariably as the dawn, whether you seek it or no. So I offer some thoughts on one of humanity’s and Civ’s fave past times.

Firstly, a Civs gotta do what a Civs gotta do. As in my reference above to spawning as a late-bloomer such as France next to am early-game, warmongering jerk such as Attila, you’re just going to have to knuckle down and go for it as soon as possible. He undoubtedly will. But, if you must warmonger, and part of you somewhere wants to, do it correctly.

  1. Do it when no one is looking. If it’s early in the game and you’ve only met Assyria or a frickin’ City State sitting the only iron on your continent, and you need iron for your Roman Legions: TAKE THEM! Then later when you meet other players, you can be like, “Assyria? Never heard of them.”
  2. It’s OK to war for Oil. You can’t always find or keep City State Allies or free land with something you need. So if you’re playing as America and you need oil to fuel those B-17’s (that you will obviously use to protect Freedom and Democracy), you’re going to have to fight for it. But be smart about it. Make sure you’ve got a healthy, productive, well-placed empire and maybe an ally or two behind you. You may want to go for the town the has the resource, but the best play is go for the capital and get the city with the resource as part of your peace agreement. Then you’ve got a capital that is hopefully well-built with a wonder or two, and you can Puppet the other town: all the oil and money, without the fuss of citizen management and extra unhappiness. That’s how Britannia ruled, and Mama taught her American offspring well.
  3. Go for the guy above you. This is where it counts. As I said above, that BFF from turn 25 is watching you catch him up. He’s coming to knock you down a peg. Be ready not only to defend, but take him out. Wait for him to attack and then just pummel the jerk. He thinks you’re weak. You’re a technology or two behind him, but you’ve been playing smart. You’ve watched him building all the Wonders, bossing the World around, as you eyed him up. Slowly building your empire, culture, cities and units to a singular and final moment when you, Rocky Balboa-like come from under to knock him out (so Rocky II, I guess). Now all his Wonders are belong to you! Enjoy it.

There are life-lessons in there somewhere, but I think one of Augustus Caesar’s maxims is apt: “That which is done well is done fast enough.” Like I said, it’s a long game.

And, finally:


This is one of the slipperiest characters in the game. Who can say “no” to Gandhi? There he is, in his hand-woven dhoti, standing by the sea making salt. But do not be fooled. He may look like the man whose face is covered by a million internet quotes about peace and love, and the man starving himself for freedom. But for all his Ben Kingsley saintliness, as with all leaders, this guy wants to win, and he’ll do so by any means necessary.

This is Gandhi’s play style: immediately ask to be your friend, maybe offer some nice trades, then he’ll start asking for “assistance” in the form of money and resources, which you will find difficult to pass on because: Gandhi. Meanwhile he’s building up, building up. He’s still asking for “assistance” while sitting in first or second place. And a couple “No, I’m sorry if this causes a divide between us” laters, he’s Denounced you to the World and then War!!! Gandhi has declared war on you and you’re feeling like the biggest jerk in the world, but he will bring the pain and nukes if he’s got them.

So mind that humble looking fellow. And don’t be afraid to go after him #becauseGandhi. Actually, it’s an ingenious play style and life lesson right there. Heck, live and play like Gandhi and nuke anyone who stands in your way!

Want to play Civ V with me on Steam? I’m Lakiski. Hit me up. I’ll be playing as Gandhi. 🙂

Inspired by the Civilization Rap? Check out more epic gaming/topical/socially conscious raps and general fun on Dan Bull’s YouTube Channel! 

About JLakis

Jessica Lakis - Writer/screenwriter. Geek & mental health blogger. Conqueror of the Useless. NERD INVICTA! View all posts by JLakis

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