Getting the Most From Your Cities: A guide to Industry and Economy

I’m posting this because it doesn’t seem to be redundant with Stuporstar’s city placement article. Read his article first if you’re confused about the numerical values of the various terrains and improvements. Also, this article was written based on version 1.09. I won’t experience 1.52 until I get back from Christmas vacation, but I haven’t seen any references to anything that would drastically change the advice given here.

1. Basic City Placement – Resources

Food – An Army Marches on its Stomach

Believe it or not, food is the basic resource in civ. Even though food is itself quite limited as to its uses, it is the basis on which all other goods are produced. The uses of food are as follows:

  • Spend on population by letting it accumulate
  • Spend on settlers or workers (along with shields)
  • Spend on shields or commerce by assigning specialists or working brown tiles
    (For the purposes of this article, brown tiles are those that produce less than 2 food and therefore cannot fully support the population point that is assigned to work them. Green tiles are those that produce 2 or more food.)

The sources of surplus food are:

  • 2 units of free food in every city
  • Bonus food resources and floodplains
  • farms/pastures/nets

Usually, gaining extra food requires forgoing some other good, as exceptional food tiles seldom produce more than one coin or hammer in addition to the food (the common exceptions being cows (3 hammers) and nets (2-3 coins). This is especially painful for a financial leader as a high-food tile will probably be a tile you cannot get the commerce bonus for. For this reason, seafood is a financial leader’s best friend. Plenty of seafood bonuses will give your cities the needed food surplus while still getting 3+ commerce per tile, something that cannot be done with farms.

Shields – Should I call them Hammers?

Hammers (a.k.a. Shields) are the most directly useful resource. They are converted directly into buildings and units. They can also be somewhat elusive. Like food, shields are highly dependant on terrain. However, unlike food, it is often difficult to get as many shields as you need for a particular city. The sources of shields are:

  • Bonus resources
  • Mines (usually on hills)
  • Engineers and priests (and citizens in times or desperation)
  • Forests and plains
  • Watermills, windmills, and workshops later in the game
  • Chopping forests
  • Rushing

Of these methods, hills will probably contribute the bulk of your shields. Forests and plains give you only one shield apiece, and generally don’t give much else. A grassland forest is usually not worth using if it could be replaced with a grassland cottage, unless you can build a lumbermill on it. Similarly, a plains tile (or a workshop/grassland) will, in the early game, produce exactly one shield, and if not farmed, will consume food. Plains/forests are somewhat better sources of shields if you have plenty of surplus food. However, in the end, there are some city locations which will be chronically shield-deprived until the modern tile improvements start yielding extra shields (guilds for workshops and replaceable parts for mills, to be exact). If you settle such locations in the classical age, you will be forced to budget a limited number of one-time shield infusions from chopping and rushing. Such cities should never even try to produce units or wonders until the discovery of replaceable parts and chemistry allows them to get a respectable production from watermills and workshops. They can, however, be good sources of commerce if surrounded with cottages and given a few commerce-multiplying buildings. They can also run specialists, but make poor dedicated GP farms since they will not have the extra GPPs from wonders. Also, it is generally agreed that all other things being equal, a large expanse of flatlands should be cottaged rather than farmed to get the best commerce return unless it is dedicated specifically to producing great people.


Commerce is the most portable resource. It can be produced anywhere, and generally benefits your empire as a whole as opposed to the city in which it is produced (unless the culture slider is turned up very high). A city that does not produce much commerce is nothing to worry about provided you’re getting enough commerce elsewhere. The sources of commerce are:

  • Bonus resources (again)
  • Cottages
  • Specialists
  • Water tiles
  • Trade routes
  • River tiles
  • Mills

In addition, gold (a related good which is generally equivalent to commerce in most cases) is gotten from a few other sources:

  • Shrines (and certain wonders)
  • Pillaging/capturing cities
  • Diplomatic deals

The most productive of these sources are cottages and specialists. Every civ will need one or the other of these commerce sources. Shrines, trade routes, and water tiles are also very useful supplements to one’s economy and should be sought out wherever possible. The commerce from mills comes later in the game and is less than that gained from a cottage built in the ancient era, so these improvements should not be regarded as a primary source of commerce but rather as a source of late-game shields that also produces a bit of commerce.

The main uses of commerce are to pay the city/civic/military upkeep bills (as gold) and to do research (as beakers). Secondary uses are:

  • Deals with other civs (tax slider)
  • Culture and happiness (Culture slider)
  • Rushing construction (tax slider and Universal Suffrage)


2. Spotting Resource-rich Sites

Bonus Resources

The first indicator of a rich city site is the presence of bonus resources. Bonus resources are essential in the early game for making a small city productive. Once your cities get large, the importance of resources diminishes, but your initial cities should always have some usable resources in the border (note that many luxuries are not useable before calendar).

Good terrain – Cottage Green

Good terrain is terrain that can easily be made productive. These terrains include grassland, hills, floodplains, and rivers. With the exception of hills, these tiles all produce at least two food and they can all be improved to provide multiple shields or commerce. For shields, look for hills balanced by river grasslands/floodplains or bonus food resources. Hills without a balancing food surplus will be useless as the city cannot afford to work them and still grow. For commerce, look for high-food river tiles if you plan to make the city a specialist-GP farm, otherwise look for grasslands or floodplains on which to build cottages. Forests and jungles can be cleared without too much effort, so their presence should not deter you from founding in an otherwise promising location. In fact, forests are a life-saver for a commerce-only city as they can be chopped to provide you with a courthouse, library, lighthouse, or whatever other improvements you might need but are unable to build with the city’s paltry shield production.

Mediocre terrain – DON’T farm brown

Plains, lakes, and coasts are not particularly valuable under most circumstances and should not be the only accessible tiles in your city radius. A farmed plain will return 2 food before biology (enough to feed the citizen working the tile), one shield, and one commerce if on a river. This population point is not being particularly productive, considering that he could be producing 2 shields or 3 commerce, plus GPPs, as a specialist. True the specialist will slow down growth, but if the best terrain you have to work is a plain, further population won’t be very useful. Building a cottage will eventually give a greater return, especially if you’re financial, but only if you have a sufficient food surplus to still work more “brown” tiles after working enough hills to fulfill your hammer needs. Lakes and coasts are somewhat similar for non-financial leaders, better than nothing but nothing to get excited about, giving two commerce which will never improve from tech or civics. Financial leaders will get three commerce out of these tiles and should give them higher priority, though still less than grasslands. Desert hills can also fall into this category, and are a last resort for cities with no other good shield source. It is also important to remember that as time passes, you gain better trade routes, civics, wonders, city improvements, and other ways to increase the value of seemingly marginal city locations, so a seemingly bad city location could eventually look appealing later on.

Bad Terrain – Worse than Specialists

Desert, tundra, and peaks. Ugh. Try to avoid them unless they contain bonus resources. Tundra forests will ultimately be marginally useful once you get lumbermills, and tundra cottages could be viable but you need a river to be able to build them. That’s all there is to say about these terrains.

Phases of Expansion – How to REX Responsibly

The first phase of expansion starts almost immediately (unless you have a special trick up your sleeve such as religion hogging or one-city warrior rushing) and is the land grab phase. At this point, your goal is to cherry-pick the best city sites and establish a defensible border. Every city you found should have immediately useable resources and/or strategic importance. Expansion should halt before you go over the OCN for your map size (9-10 cities on a standard map for version 1.09). You will deliberately leave many tiles unworked because the tradeoff of colonizing them is too great, given limits on city size and number.

The backfill phase begins gradually as you acquire certain technologies that improve the productivity of less important tiles. These are:

  • Civil service (farms on non-river spaces)
  • Guilds (workshops give 2 shields)
  • Calendar (use of advanced luxury resources)
  • Machinery (Mills) and Replaceable parts (Better mills)
  • Railroad (Extra shields)
  • Communism (Less upkeep, better workshop/watermill)

In addition, the building of courthouses in every city paves the way for responsible expansion above the OCN, and the discovery of galleons will open up previously uncolonized islands.
The lands settled in this phase will be those already claimed in your borders but neglected due to unproductiveness, as well as recently discovered islands and the now-vacant sites of razed cities.

Overlap – Yes it’s a good idea in this game too

One of the vital lessons every civ3 player had to learn was to love overlap. With Civ4, overlap is seen by some as a bogeyman to be avoided if possible. This is generally a mistake in my opinion. The days of CxC city placement are over by decree from the Firaxis programmers, but some overlap is quite viable. The thing to remember is that it takes a long time for a city to reach size 20 (the size needed to work every tile in the radius). And I mean a long while, because happiness and health limits will take their toll if you even try to grow a size 20 city in the medieval era. In addition, certain tiles aren’t valuable anyway. Don’t bother shifting your city location just to encompass an extra plains tile. Instead, cities should be placed to maximize the number of good tiles that can be worked within a reasonable period of time, a goal which is not incompatible with a CxxxC placement scheme, or even a CxxC if it gets you an extra wheat tile.

Production management – Watching cottages grow

When deciding how to manage your cities, the most important question to ask is what is limiting their growth. Cities can, generally speaking, be limited by food, happiness, or space. At different times in the game, different cities will hit different limits.

Food limits and Population Budgeting – Think before you go into food debt

Food is a very common limiting factor for your cities, and the most complex. A city is food-limited if it is prevented from adopting an otherwise appealing tile/specialist-working scheme because it would lead to starvation, and in which the city size is still beneath the unhappiness cap. This is most likely in cities that work large numbers of hills and plains, or that have large numbers of specialists. Under these circumstances, production assignments that produce less than 2 food (specialist or hill, for example) must be paired with assignments that produce surplus food (farm-grassland) to find the true productivity-per-worker. For example, a grassland-hamlet produces 2 commerce per pop point, while a mined grassland-hill produces 1.5 shields, per pop, as it must be paired with another worker assigned to a grassland-farm who would otherwise be doing some other productive job. A mine-plain-hill would produce 1.33 shields, as it requires two grassland-farms to support it. A farmed plains still produces only one shield per worker, underlining how worthless plains are under normal circumstances. These calculations would be different if the best unused food producer available were a farmed floodplain. The exact number can be found by taking:

[yield] = base yield of hammers or commerce
[food_a] = base food yield
[food_b] = food value of the best unused food tile available, usually 3 or 4

[food_b] must be at least 3 or the equation will result in a division by zero. In game terms this indicates a city that is unable to produce any surplus food and is very limited in its ability to utilize tiles of less than 2 food production.

While making a comprehensive graph of various tile types using this formula leads to a large, unwieldy spreadsheet, a few conclusions can be drawn. First, the ability to work food-poor tiles or hire specialists depends greatly on the presence of floodplains. A city with floodplains and a city with only grasslands should not even be considered as being in the same class, as the floodplain city will be able to work tiles that would be unprofitable for the grassland city. Second, there is a real difference between a tile producing 1 food and a tile producing zero food. If supported by grassland-farms, shields from a 1-food producing tile are 150% as valuable as those from a 0-food tile, making a grassland hill more valuable than a plains hill. If supported by floodplain farms, the difference drops to 133%, and if supported by floodplain-farms after biology, it is a meager 116%.

Population Limits and Tile Budgeting – Specialists are finally useful

A second circumstance is when a city has plenty of food but a low population limit due to happiness, and you are unwilling or unable to increase happiness. This tends to happen early in the game before calendar resources, the culture slider, and multiple religious buildings are available. In this case, maximizing output is a simple task of choosing the best possible tiles without utterly breaking the bank on food. It is not necessary to use up all available food under these circumstances, although it is usually advisable if specialists or plains-hills are available. In fact, this is the circumstance in which specialists hold their own even without GPPs, since food is not a consideration. If a city is managed in this way, care must be taken to rearrange it to allow for growth once the happiness limit is raised.

Tile Limits and Improvement Budgeting – Tear down those farms

Finally, cities can be limited by running out of space. If there are no more worthwhile tiles to work, you have no choice but to keep assigning specialists until the food runs out and the city stops growing. At this point, the most important question is which improvements should be built to make the best use of available food. While farms certainly allow the population to keep growing, they are of limited use if the only role for the extra population is to become specialists. A mature town improvement (making 4+ commerce depending on various factors) is probably more valuable than a farm which will allow half a specialist (for 1.5-3 commerce, depending on civics). Additionally, a tile making less than 2 food should only be worked if doing so gives a greater return per food consumed than assigning the worker to be a specialist. This is probably true of mined hills. It is also probably false for pre-guilds workshops or arctic-furs camps, for example, as a 1 to 1 food-shield or 1 to 1.5 food to commerce tradeoff is equivalent to the value you get from a specialist without representation, but without great people points thrown in.

Cottage or Specialist? – Cottage unless you know what you’re doing

This question should be in your mind as you plan every commerce-producing city. While every civ will use some cottages and some specialists, there is a substantial grey area in which decisions must be made. In terms of raw commerce produced, the totals are:

Cottage – 1-4 unimproved, 1-6 (+1 shield) with appropriate tech and civics
Specialist – 3 unimproved, 6 with Representation

So pound for pound, specialists win under a strictly happiness-limited caste-system economy due to the fact that they start out at full capacity. However, this is a fairly specialized situation (Lots of food, population strictly capped by unhappiness). Under a strictly food-limited situation (High population, lots of happiness, limited food), cottages will produce much more commerce as much of the population in a specialist-based city would be devoted to farming to feed the specialists. When deciding how to use one’s population, it is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of both specialists and cottages.

Take time to reach full capacity
Food-neutral if placed on grassland
Can produce shields under Universal Suffrage
Require the presence of flatlands to work
Need 2 civics and one tech to get full bonuses
Can be pillaged
No special buildings required

Instantly reach full productivity
Only one civic/tech required to get +3 bonus
Don’t make their own food
Require specialist buildings or an extra civic change (Caste System)
Cannot be pillaged
Independent of terrain
Produce Great People

The great people are the real wild card in this decision. Pacifism, the Parthenon, the National Epic, and the Philosophical trait can all multiply the usefulness of specialists. On the other hand, the cost of GPs will increase as time goes by, making the specialists less useful later in the game. In addition, splitting up specialists into multiple cities will slow down the rate of GP production.

Relevant questions to ask yourself include:

  • Which GPs would be useful to me right now? (esp. for prophets and scientists)
  • What are my leader traits?
  • Will the turning point of this game come in the Medieval or Modern era?
  • Is there space to build cottages around the city?
  • How many wonders are there in the city? How many more will I build?
  • Is there another specialist-farm city already hogging all the GPs?
  • What civics do I plan to run in the future?
  • How safe is this city from pillaging?
  • Will the city’s productivity be limited by food, space, or happiness?

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