Balancing Growth and Warfare in Civ IV

Success in Civilization IV usually involves military conquest, and there are no doubt warmongers out there who like nothing more than spending all their time either waging war or preparing to wage war. Nevertheless, one of the hidden messages in the game is that war is expensive, both in time and material, and should only be waged when the time is ripe. Count me among those who adhere to that strategy.
It would be nice if the player could always dictate when and where he would like to go to war. Unfortunately, some of the AI personas do not always allow that luxury. Even the well-defended player will often find himself victim of a sneak attack by Montezuma, Ghenghis Khan, Isabella (or anyone, for that matter)—even if the attacker has no real chance of achieving victory. It therefore behooves the wise player always to be aware of this potential threat, and to take steps to meet it.

Nevertheless, the wise player should also never forget that if nothing else, going to war involves at least ten turns (and usually many more) where he will be solely occupied with conducting warfare. I’ve had wars last well over a century on the Civ calendar, and this expenditure of time cannot be dismissed. While you are warring, your peaceful AI opponents are growing and developing, and unless there are very tangible benefits to be got, the intelligent player should try to truncate his military adventures as soon as he has achieved his aims.

So what strategy should a player pursue so that he will ultimately be victorious in the game itself, as opposed to just winning wars? The key, I think, is balance.

So how do you balance growth with warfare, so as to proceed, as much as possible, in an unbroken upward curve toward victory?

One key that seems paramount is possession of river cities. The reason river cities are so precious is two-fold: The first, most obvious benefit of river cities is their ability to spawn farms on many squares. If a river city possesses floodplains, this benefit is enhanced. Farmed floodplains produce a tremendous number of food units, and therefore not only do they allow a city to grow at a rapid rate, they can also be used to quickly produce Settlers and Workers in the early phases of the game without impeding a city’s overall growth. Later on, when these units diminish in importance, such cities can easily support a great number of Specialists, which can transform such a city into a “Great People Farm,” generating the Great Scientists and Great Engineers so vital to succcess.

The second, and ultimately more important benefit of river cities is that once the player obtains the Machinery tech, he can begin to put Watermills on these critical riverside squares. Watermills are good right off the get-go, but as you acquire the Replaceable Parts tech (plus-1 hammer), and later, the Electricity tech (plus-2 commerce), their value begins to multiply. The final addition of the State Property civic completes their development, adding one additional food production to each Watermill square, and turning them into production powerhouses.

Watermills provide another benefit. Most river cities never have to worry about growth. On the upper difficulty levels, however, city growth is always inhibited by either the happiness or health of its citizenry. One concern which remains constant throughout nearly the entire game is the player’s struggle to provide enough happiness and health resources to allow his cities to continue to grow. It is a virtual certainty that at many points in the game the player will have to rearrange the squares his citizens are working so as not to outgrow these resources.

Watermills provide a handy place to do this. By transferring production (through the city screen) off Farm squares and onto Watermill squares the player can easily restrict, or even stop altogether the growth of his city (allowing health or happiness to catch up) without sacrificing either overall productivity, or the maintenance of Specialists.

I have often built Watermills on every available square as soon as possible, reasoning that if I run out of food, I can always return the square to farming. In practice, however, this never seems to happen. By the time I’m able to start gowing again, the Watermill squares will have so gained in value (by techs and civics) that they never need to be refarmed. Of course, it isn’t wise to say “never,” but as a general rule, the above strategy seems to work beautifully.

The goal of first building, and then improving Watermill squares, also seems to dovetail nicely with a good route through the tech tree, i.e., one in which the player can acquire techs that are not only useful to himself, but also can be traded.

It does the player little good to duplicate research efforts by other Civs. He should attempt a route through the tree that gives him unique techs, and the pursuit of Machinery, and later, a beeline to Liberalism (with it’s attendant free tech of The Printing Press) provides techs no one else has, and which can also be traded to other civs with little adverse affect. Paper, Liberalism, Education, and so on, are seldom given priority by other Civs, and even though one might despair of ever being the first to gain Electricity or Physics (which the AIs always seem to get first), it’s very possible to research Communism and be the first to get the State Property civic, which can also be traded when the time is right.

One of the cardinal rules of Civ IV is that one must never neglect research. One method of doing this, of course, is by building Cottages. As Cottages mature into Towns, they begin to produce great amounts of commerce, which is directly translatable into research. This is a good approach, and in non-river cities, about the only one available. But oddly enough, Civ IV is structured in such a way that a river city, with all its water squares occupied with Watermills, can become a veritable powerhouse of research. The first time I aggressively pursued this strategy, I expected that my overall research would fall off, but instead, the opposite happened. With judicious use of Watermills I discovered that I was usually able to keep my rate of research at 70%, and as my Civ matured, I could even increase it to 80%, and sometimes even 90%. In the critical end game, this is a powerful benefit.

Other writers have noted that the true industrial powerhouses—the kind of cities in which you build the Ironworks, National Epic, and Heroic Epic national wonders—usually turn out not to be cities surrounded by hills (with mines and windmills)—but river cities. One cannot stress enough the importance of these cities. Possession of one or two of these sites can easily make the difference between victory and defeat.

Which brings us back to balance. While warmongering may have its benefits, I have found that it is best to have good relations with as many civs as possible so as to keep a more or less good reputation throughout the game. This does not mean you will not be attacked, for it is almost axiomatic that you will—especially in the earlier stages of the game.

Some players say that they always want to go to war at the time and place of their choosing, and although I agree with them up to a point, I have found that this emphatically does not mean that you have to be the one who starts a war. There is nothing wrong in making preparations for war, whilst at the same time avoiding it as long as possible. When you are not warring, you are growing in both production and science, and ultimately, for all wins except for cultural victories, this will be the weight that will tip the scales in your favor.

One must be vigilant, however. As a Civ grows, the thoughtful player will find himself able to field larger and larger armies without penalty. If you are able to maintain Open Border agreements with your neighbors, you can always visit their cities with either Missionaries or military units (and later, with Spies) to see what they’re up to. If you find them building great numbers of Horse Archers, say, you can counter with a force of Spearmen or Pikemen.

I have discovered that in times of peace, if you keep at least three or four military units in readiness in all cities, and five or six in those cities most vulnerable to attack, you should be adequately prepared for most eventualities.

In war, the defender always has the advantage over the attacker. Not only can the defender move about his own territory with much more facility than the invader, but his cities themselves offer defense bonuses which any attacker must overcome before he can conquer and occupy them. It is therefore critical than any player establish good internal lines of communication (via roads and later on, railroads), so that he can at first meet, and later overcome, the inroads made by invading armies.

If one makes sure to distribute his forces in a flexible and resiliant fashion, he has no reason to fear attack. He should be able to efficiently direct his military units so as to neutralize, and then destroy, enemy forces.

A word on warfare: When defending, many players like to deploy their forces in “stacks of doom,” i.e., a great number of forces occuping a single square. I have found that although this may be an effective tactic when you are besieging cities, in the early stages of a war, when you are still recoiling from your enemy’s initial onslaught, it is best to array your troops in smaller groups made up of a mix of units. Each group should consist of at least one or two strong defenders (Pikemen or Spearmen, for defense against mounted units), several mobile attack units (Horse Archers, War Elephants, Knights, Cavalrymen, etc.), a number of units that can both attack and defend (Macemen, Musketeers, Riflemen, etc.), and most important, one or more siege weapons (such as Catapults, Cannon, or Artillery).

Once you’ve got your stacks together, rather than heedlessly attacking everything in sight, it’s best to have these smaller mixed stacks occupy strong points along invasion routes (hills, forests, jungles, or, best of all, forested or jungled hills). War in Civ IV should be conducted much like a chess game: Occupy strong squares, block the attacker at as many points as possible, and wait for him to come to you. Only when you have lured him onto weak squares should you choose to attack, and then, it should be an attack to the death.

This is why siege weapons are so important. Catapults, Cannon, and Artillery should always be regarded as the sacrificial lambs of warfare. They are easy and cheap to build, and their ability to inflict collateral damage cannot be overstated. After a few blows from siege weapons, the units in a stack of attackers will be so weakened as to be easy prey for your other units.

If you mouse over a stack of attackers, you can always see what you’re up against. Typically AI attackers will either send out single marauders (usually mobile attack units), which will try to slip into your territory and plunder juicy squares, followed by attack stacks composed of a variety of units. As imposing as these stacks might be, they can be defeated and annihilated by your own attack stacks—as long as you are patient.

A typical problem in defeating these stacks is when they are composed (as they often are with “aggressive” Civs) of units possessing the “immune from first strike” promotion. This is where siege weapons prove so valuable. Although these units are said to be “immune,” this does not mean that they cannot be weakened by attack with siege weapons. Neither does it mean that an attacking Catapult or Cannon will necessarily be destroyed by attacking. Often a siege unit will “withdraw” from an attack, and although its own strength may be reduced to almost zero by the attack, it still can survive to fight another day. Such units can either be withdrawn to a safe zone, or joined on a newly occupied square by nearby defensive units. If protected and given a place to heal, they can rejoin the fray later.

This is why deploying multiple smaller stacks on adjacent squares can be so valuable. Once an attacking stack is isolated on a vulnerable square, and surrounded by several stacks of defenders on adjacent squares, it is easy to bombard it with siege weapons. Once the enemy units are fatally weakened, you can send in your attack troops to finish them off one by one. That’s why patience is so valuable. Because military units heal between turns, it is essential that once you begin to attack a square, you do so with the idea of eliminating ALL the units on that square.

It isn’t always easy to wait until you’ve got overwhelming advantage before commencing an attack, and waiting often means you’ll temporarily lose some key production squares to plunderers, but until until you’ve got your enemy where you want him, you should emphatically NOT attack. There are some exceptions, of course. Sometimes it happens that an enemy poses such a dire threat (i.e., in position to attack and perhaps even capture one of your cities) that you must throw everything but the kitchen sink against him, no matter what the cost—but if you practice the above strategy you can practically eliminate such a scenario.

I try to set up situations so that attacking stacks are so weakened by bombardment that each counterattack by your defending units has at least an 80% or better chance of success. The way to win wars is by keeping your “kill ratio” at 6-1 or better. By doing this you not only preserve your own army (whilst busily promoting your most valorous warriors), you also sap and weaken your enemy so that when the time comes for you to invade his territory and attack his cities, he can do little to stop you.

This is how wars usually proceed: Although AIs often signal their intent by massing forces on your borders, or by cancelling open border agreements, they also can attack right out of the blue. No matter what preceeds the opening of hostilities, once a war begins it is essential that the defender immediately switch all his production over to weapons of war. When you fight, you must fight hard, and with all your resources. Unless one of your cities is engaged in building a super-critical Wonder or improvement, you should immediately leave off what your are doing and switch over to war production. You can pick it up later, once the war is over, but during wartime, you neglect armaments production at your own peril.

Once war is declared, AI Civs will begin making their way into your territory. The first wave of attack is almost always the strongest, but as the war wears on, and your defensive effort begins to take its toll, you will discover the flow of attackers coming into your territory will begin to weaken, and then dribble to almost nothing. This is what you’ve been waiting for.

If the strength of your civilization is where it should be, you should now find that not only will you have eliminated all enemy forces from key strong points, but that you now occupy them yourself and can begin to plan how you will invade your enemy’s territory.

Your first consideration should be: Where should you attack? Now that your rival has weakened himself so as to be ripe for the taking, how best should you proceed?

Obviously, you should aim to capture one or more of his cities, but which ones? In deciding this you must take into account the all-important issue of cultural control. Virtually any city you capture will incline toward “flipping” back to an enemy’s control, simply because right after capture, it is populated almost entirely by enemy citizens. Therefore prime consideration should be given to those cities already besieged by your own cultural boundaries, cities whose capture will result in a rival’s cultural boundaries deflating like a punctured balloon.

It does little good to “spearhead” through an enemy’s land and capture a far prize (such as his Capital), and try to hold it. Not only will such a city be ripe for insurrection, but your opponent’s cultural pressure will tend to surround and stifle such an outpost, making it useless to the invader. Moreover, it is such a thorn in his side, he will move heaven and earth to try and reclaim it. Only those cities which can be captured and held—those in close proximity to your own culture and development—should be considered for conquest.

If you can capture one, two, or perhaps even three cities in war during the earlier stages of the game, and by doing so permanently weaken your rival and diminish his cultural realm, you should consider the war a success. Even such modest gains will exact a heavy price in time and production, and once you have obtained them, you should think about making peace.

To that end, here’s a simple tip for maximizing your gains: When you’ve gotten what you wanted, and you sense (by the levels of your own civic unrest) that your citizens have had about all they can stand of war, go ahead and contact your opponent with the idea of ending the conflict.

If he agrees to talk (as he usually will), you’ll be presented with a statement from him suggesting directly that you “bury the hatchet,” stop all this “pointless fighting,” and end the war. Do NOT select this option. Rather, propose a trade. This will bring you into a screen where you can ask your opponent “What is the price for peace?”

If you’ve exacted a heavy toll, he will often offer techs, world maps, gold, or even one of his cities to get you to cease your attacks. This is obviously a big improvement over simply ending the war, and is how you should always sue for peace. Never just accept a peace offer without demanding tribute. You’re leaving money on the table if you do.

Once a war is over, you’ll often find yourself lousy with military units, and rolling in dough. How you make the transition from war to peace is almost as important as winning the war, and the key here is “redeployment.”

In captured cities, you must maintain a sizeable military presence to protect against revolt. Up until the Industrial Era, I’ve found that five to seven units, apportioned among siege weapons, mobile attackers, and all-purpose units, is usually sufficient. The remainder of your units should be redeployed back to your other cities, with those cities most vulnerable to attacks from other Civs getting the lion’s share of the returnees.

Because wars last so long, you will often discover many obsolete units left over from previous builds still occupying your cities. Some of these units are eligible for modernization, i.e., Catapults can be turned into Cannon, Knights into Cavalrymen, and so forth. Modernization has a price, however, and while some units can be modernized for a very modest expenditure, turning an old Warrior into a Rifleman, say, can be prohibitively expensive.

Maintaining over-large armies costs money, and detracts from the overall growth of a Civ. Therefore, during redeployment I usually select only those units which have gained a number of promotions to be candidates for modernization, and even then, I will consider only those which can be upgraded at modest cost. The remaining obsolete units I immediately disband, and use the war returnees to regarrison these cities. I have found that for cities far removed from the front lines, three units will usually suffice both for protection and for happiness.

Thus, once you have completed redeployment, you should have your most veteran units occupying your furthest outposts in sufficient number to guard against sneak attack, whilst your interior cities are protected by a smaller token force. As peace returns to your land, you will find yourself eminently protected against all current threats, and poised to return to even greater levels of growth and productivity. If you have managed to capture or control additional health resources such as wheat, fish, deer, clams, or whatever, so much the better. You have won the war, and to the victor go the spoils.

During the course of the game I like to conduct at most three real (i.e., non-barbarian) wars: The first two, I prefer to be the agressee rather than the aggressor. Not only does this strategy preserve my reputation (so as not to become the endless victim of “furious” neighbors and to have to spend precious game turns involved in unwanted warfare), but it provides me with ready candidates for my own aggression when I finally find myself ready to begin taking over the board. The third war is usually for me “the war to end all wars,” when I am bent on going for the win.

One more comment on barbarians: In some scenarios you will find yourself in a position to conquer barbarian cities. The “terra” scenario, for example, provides a “New World” occupied by nothing BUT barbarian cities. Barbarian cities provide an avenue for essentially painless warfare. Since none of the AI Civs care a whit for barbarians, you will offend no one by either conquering, or razing, these cities. Also, since barbarians usually trail mightily in the tech race, conquering them is a lot easier than taking Civ cities.

While barbarians might not build a lot of buildings (although this is not uniformly true), they do develop their lands and resources. Thus taking these cities offers the conquering player sites where all he has to do is grow in order to work these already-developed squares. This gives his Civ a tremendous lift, because he needn’t devote valuable worker time toward improving the sites. Also, because barbarian cities have little culture, the player’s own culture rapidly expands to fill the void left by the departed pagans. Again, when conquering barbarian sites, give river cities your highest priority, subject, of course, to normal strategic and tactical considerations.

Once peace has returned to your lands, you must not just rest on your laurels, for you can be sure your rivals are not resting on theirs. As you are in the process of developing your culture and growth, you must always keep pace with your rivals. This means that even though your emphasis should be on building Wonders, growing your cities, and adding to your wealth, culture, and science, you must not neglect your military. As new military techs become available, methodically improve your armies, building a few new units, upgrading your best old veterans, all the while keeping a wary eye on your nearest rivals. Right up to the modern era, when navies and air forces begin to dominate the board, you should pay most attention to your immediate neighbors. Plan your builds to deal with them, for they are your most likely adversaries. It is almost impossible for a Civ one or two countries away (or separated by an ocean) to effectively conduct warfare against you, so the liklihood of attack from one of these is slim.

The AI Civs are programmed to look for weakness. If you see a Civ on one of your borders begin to move a lot of powerful forces around his own lands, prepare to meet them. Often positioning a few stacks of countering forces along likely invasion routes (while keeping them safely within your own borders) will cause a greedy AI to think twice about attacking you. The longer you keep that Civ at arm’s length, the better off you are. War is NOT the answer.

Until the end, that is. If you have managed your empire efficiently, built Academies in your most productive Science cities, chosen your Civics with care and circumspection, and developed your lands to their utmost potential, by the time the ending arrives you should be well ahead in techs, size, and productive capacity. At this point, you should be making decisions as to how you want to go about winning the game.

Unless one is pursuing a Cultural or Diplomatic victory (neither of which I know how to do), winning usually boils down to either a space race, or military conquest.

In either scenario, one development which should be pursued at any cost is the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. This powerful Wonder negates the need to construct either Coal Plants or Hydro Plants, for its completion instantly provides power to all Factories on the continent, giving your Civ a productivity boost unmatched by any other single improvement.

Again, the idea of having good river cities pays another benefit, for not only must the Three Gorges be built in a river city and no where else, a properly developed river city equipped with an Ironworks can make short work of building this Wonder. Here’s the best way to go about it:

As you approach the time when you can research Plastics (the Three Gorges prerequisite), you should try to array your Specialists in such a way so that one of your cities produces at least one Great Engineer. If you’ve got a Great Engineer on tap before your begin the Three Gorges, you’ve already reduced the time it takes to build it by better than a third. As soon as you get Plastics, immediately go to your river city and build a Hydro Plant. If the city has an Ironworks, this won’t take but a few turns, and will be richly repaid once you begin the dam itself.

From then on it’s a simple matter of monitoring construction until the Great Engineer can complete the dam in a single turn, and then having him finish it. Once the Three Gorges gets going, you’re well on your way to victory.

Which way you go from there depends on the game situation. As a matter of fact, you should have chosen your method of victory well before the dam is completed. If you are completely outstripping your opponents (often I’ve had a game score double or even triple my nearest rival) then you probably ought to shoot for a “Conquest” or “Domination” victory. If you have a rival close to your own score, then perhaps it’s best to go for the Space Victory.

If you have chosen the Space Race, then you should have already built the Apollo program, and ideally, some of the Space Ship casings. No matter how productive your Civ may be, you cannot dawdle building the Space Ship. Space Ship components cannot be “hurried,” but must be built one hammer at a time. If you fall behind in the Space Race, you may never catch up.

Once I played a game where I had everything going my way. I had super productive cities, I had neutralized all military threats, and all I had to do was build the Space Ship to win. But whilst I had been basking in the reflected glory of my incipient victory, Queen Victoria had busily completed a number of low-tech SS components, and was researching new techs at a furious rate. Nevertheless I felt that my productivity edge was so great that I still stood in little danger of losing.

So there we were, the Queen and I, both building at breakneck pace. Nevertheless, to my mind, there was no way I could lose. With a great deal of satisfaction I installed the final rivet in my very last SS component, clicked the “end of turn” button, and waited for the victory announcement. I got one, all right, but imagine my dismay when I read “Queen Victoria has won a Space Race victory!”

NOT me. I was outraged! I’d been robbed! What an insult! What kind of game is this, anyway?…and so on. But I’d been guilty of overconfidence, and this was my payback. I had spent maybe 40 hours playing, only to be greeted by the supreme disappointment of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But it taught me a lesson: Never dawdle in the Space Race.

If you’re way ahead of your nearest rival, and he hasn’t made any significant progress in the Space Race, then you can go for the Conquest or Domination victory. This is just a matter of assembling a powerful Navy (for amphibious assaults), a powerful air force (consisting ideally of 15-20 Stealth Bombers, maybe 10 jet fighters), a very powerful land army—and then launching a war. Your assault forces should consist primarily of Modern Armor units (unequalled for their mobility and ability to attack multiple times), Gunships, and a large backup contingent of Mechanized Infantry. The Mechanized Infantry support the Armor, and can help in finishing off the last battered inhabitants of a beleagured city—but their primary duty is to occupy conquered cities in the wake of your main assault force.

This kind of a combination is virtually unstoppable, and with it you should be able to overwhelm your more backward rivals with unparalled speed. Once that final assault begins, victory isn’t far away.

By the way, you can specify at the beginning of any game which victories will be allowed—and which will not—by selecting the Custom Game option and checking or unchecking each victory option. For example, if you don’t uncheck the Domination Victory option, then you will never be able to win by Conquest, because the Domination rubric will kick in before you’ve conquered the world. But that’s enough for now. The rest you can learn by trial and error, and why should I tell you any more? What I’ve told you I’ve never seen anywhere else, not in so many words, anyway, so take this go grab yourself a victory in Civilization IV. Good luck!

Discuss this article on the forum