We’ve had to wait longer than usual, but with Civilization VI out now a new dawn is breaking once again on the venerable 4X series, ready to give us a fresh take on the fantasy of guiding a nation from the dawn of time through to the near future.
Related: find out more about Civilization 6 in our review.
Even though the basic formula remains the same, the devs have never rested on their laurels, always rejigging the visuals and mechanics between entries in bold and drastic ways. Sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes it hasn’t. But 25 years on from its inception and going stronger than ever, it’s fair to say that Civ has - to quote the original's box - ‘built an empire to stand the test of time.’
As you're about to see, and then subsequently spit your cup of coffee all over your screen like a sitcom character, we've included the Call to Power games. We've also omitted Beyond Earth and Alpha Centauri, even though the former carries the Civ nomenclature and the latter carries the Meier name.
Why? Because Civ games, to us, are about guiding a people from prehistory to the future, journeying through recognisable periods of human history and doing it on Earth. While CtP deviates from that formula slightly, it's still very recgonisable as the classic Civ experience. Beyond Earth and Alpha Centauri? Well, their names say it all.
Which entries propelled Civ to glory, and which are best left in the past? Join us as we chart the series from its ancient era to the modern day, and rank each of the Civilization games from worst to best.
8 - Civilization: Call to Power
Purists will scoff at the inclusion of Activision’s ambitious yet shambolic stab at the great empire-builder, but it marked a blip in the history of the series that’s kind of fascinating.
Call to Power arose out of legal tussles between Activision and Microprose over the board game origins of the ‘Civilization’ trademark. Made without Sid Meier, Jeff Briggs and co at the helm, it was Activision’s first stab at the Civ franchise, which perhaps explains why they seemingly crammed every idea into it that a single game could possibly hold.
Featuring outlandish ideas like space warfare and underwater cities, as well as a whole wealth of sneaky units like lawyers, slavers, televangelists with televisions for heads and, errr, steampunky blimps that beamed advertising onto enemy Civs, Call to Power was nothing if not ambitious. It was marred by a poor interface and bad implementation however, with all the extra content making the game feel bloated and unfocused, with the late-game feeling like a hellish rabble of conflicting ideas that, frankly, was a bit grim to be a part of.
Let’s just call it ‘Franken-civ' and move on...
7 - Civilization II
Civ 2 probably deserves an apology for being put in line right next to the black sheep of the family, because it really is a far superior game. It took the series out of a top-down view into a more immersive isometric perspective, expanded the number of techs and playable civs, and deepened war and diplomacy.
Yet when I upgraded from Civ 1 to Civ 2, I remember that for all its added polish and depth, it felt somehow colder than the original; little things like the fact that leader screens were just generic portraits, the static city view, and those awful video clips of advisors dressed up like they were going to a Roman-themed uni party.
Not that those niggles stopped me from pouring half a decade of my life into it, and remembering its sweetly 90s soundtrack to this day. Just like every other Civ game - it ranks among the greatest games of its time.
6 - Civilization
Where it all began. It’s fitting that one of my enduring memories of Civ is that pixellated cutscene of a young Earth smouldering into existence, because that’s precisely the role this game played for the series - setting the scene for generations to come.
With its blocky bird’s-eye view, only seven leaders and a comparatively small tech tree, of course the original is also technically the crudest, but it had some flourishes that gave it a big personality.
Meeting each leader was a treat, and your negotiations with them would be dramatised by their contorting, shifting faces as you inevitably pissed them off for calling them an ostrich or not handing over your techs to them. The city view – fully animated by gorgeous sprites – remains the best in the series, and the different looks of the advisers when you changed government were a great touch. It had a charm that was unmatched until much later in the series.
5 - Call to Power 2
If the purists were scoffing before, they’ll be choking on their self-righteous lentils that Call to Power 2, which doesn’t even have the word ‘Civilization’ in the title, makes it onto this list among the Sid Meier thoroughbreds.
For all intents and purposes it is a Civ game, and Activision’s second and final stab at the Civ formula was a big improvement on its bloated predecessor. Yes, there are still slavers and those blasted lawyers being a nuisance, but the improved interface, better diplomacy, and ability to automate units make it much enjoyable. It even introduced a couple of innovations like cultural borders and ‘armies’, both of which were taken on in subsequent games (the latter appears in Civ VI as the 'combined arms' mechanic, where you can stack certain military units with others to make them more effective).
Call to Power 2 cut out its predecessor’s underwater cities and space colonisation, but still has its share of interesting features - like global warming and futuristic army units – that spiced up the gameplay. The source code for the game was released in 2003, and if you do want to give it a crack you can buy it at GOG. It’s best played with the CtP2 Apolyton patch, which fixes many of the bugs and improves AI (nice to see that there's someone out there actually cares about the black sheep of the Civ extended family).
4 - Civilization III
The oldest Civilization game that manages to feel timeless, thanks to a spit-and-polished pixel aesthetic, lovely animations, and deep systems that remain a central part of the series to this day. Civ III introduced Civilization traits, endowing each civ with more individuality, and encouraging different strategies depending on which one you chose. It built on the idea of national borders established in CtP 2, and was also (regrettably) the last Civ game to have a city view.
Civ III had a few maverick features too. You could monopolise strategic resources and luxuries then sell them on for a premium, had to deal with corruption in distant cities, and even faced the occasional volcanic explosion. Best of all, leaders would wear clothing befitting of their era; who wouldn’t want to see Abe Lincoln wearing a fur hat and jerkin in 1000BC?.
With the Play the World and Conquests expansions, Civ III remains a rich and pleasantly pixellated entry that’s still a joy to revisit.
3 - Civilization V
In a huge overhaul, Firaxis ‘de-stacked’ units and changed the map from a square grid to a hex grid for Civ V. This helped make maps feel more geographically natural than ever before, and wars far more satisfying, as good tactics and positioning could often defeat a far bigger force. City-States were a welcome new feature too.
Civ V was far from perfect upon release. The AI was bonkers (not in the ‘fun-at-a-party’ way), vassalage from Civ IV was dropped, and espionage felt over-simplified. With the expansion packs Civ V truly came into its own, though the fact that these were required to make the it shine meant that the game felt like it went backwards before truly moving forwards.
Gods and Kings reintroduced religion, now more customisable and robust, while Brave New World added in Tourism and Ideologies, both of which combated the series’ trademark late-game lull. Check out the Civ V Community Patch Project as well if you want an interesting rejig of the rules, better AI, and the reinstatement of Civ IV features like vassal states and deeper espionage.
This is undoubtedly the most polished Civ to date, and held top spot on this list until my heart made me do a last-second u-turn. Much like Civ II to Civ I, this just lacked that extra ‘something’ in relation to its predecessor...
2 - Civilization VI
It's not easy to rank a vanilla Civ game and compare it with entries that had a couple of expansion packs and several years to come to full fruition, but at the same time it's kind of irresistible.
Where Civ V pared back on many of the great features introduced in its predecessor, the latest entry retains just about all of them. Religion, tourism, espionage and city-states are all here, and have been rejigged to offer the deepest Civ experience yet, which is deceived by the bold, colourful visual style that looks incredible in motion.
The big decision to de-stack cities, spreading them across several tiles with separate zones for different building types, was an inspired one, forcing you to be more tactical about city placement. The option to merge different unit types and form armies, meanwhile, gets rid of the unit clutter that oft plagued Civ V.
From the scrawled maps that have replaced the dreaded Fog of War, to the Wonders that now stand proud and massive on their own tiles, to the art style of the leaders (whose personalities are now bolstered by new 'Agendas'), Civ VI feels a fitting celebration of the series on its 25th anniversary. The AI remains chaotic, but with patches and expansions inevitable, Civ VI has the potential to claim the throne.
For now, however, the King (or Deity?) remains unchallenged...
1 - Civilization IV
Remember the charm I prattled on about while discussing the original Civ? Well, this is where it made a triumphant return - with full 3D graphics. From that sweeping, lovely menu music (Baba Yetu), to Leonard Nimoy sagely giving you inspirational quotes each time you discovered a technology, to the fact that in the late-game you could seamlessly zoom out into space and see the whole world, Civ IV was a real charmer.
It wasn’t just superficial, either. Religion as a tool of control made its debut, and with the expansions we got fantastic features like vassal states and espionage (I’ll never forget my successful death-or-glory mission to sabotage Mansa Musa’s spaceship production and steal the Space Race victory).
For all its charms, Civ IV was still flawed. War was an unstrategic slog consisting of the infamous Stacks of Doom, the late-game dragged on (despite the inclusion of corporations in the Beyond the Sword expansion), and religion was never as effective as it could’ve been.
Even though going back to it now is surprisingly tough after playing the complete version of Civ V, the depth and presentation of Civ IV, and its role in progressing the series, wins it the top spot.
So there we have it. The definitive Civ rankings so you don’t need to do them yourself (or get enraged about how wrong we are).