Oh boy. This one hurt. When we first fired this feature up, this was the first series I wanted to cover, seeing as it's both incredibly popular and dear to my heart. But when I sat down and tried to actually rank them, I gave up. I just could not wring my hands tight enough to sort between them.
After a few weeks' stretching and hand-wringing exercises, though, I think I'm ready. Maybe. Sort of. Please don't hurt me.
What made separating these games tough is that, when you look at them as a whole, they're so similar. While nips and tucks have been made, and systems introduced and overhauled, many of the most basic mechanics have remained almost untouched in over 20 years. This speaks volumes as to how enduring the series core design is, sure, but it also makes picking between games a lot harder than a franchise where, say, the first game has almost nothing in common with the first.
A few notes before we begin: only the primary Civilization titles are being included. That explains why the original Colonization is not at the top of the list, and also why Alpha Centauri and Civilization Revolution are also missing. This list was hard enough as it was when only dealing with the five main games.
1. Civilization IV
It was a close-run thing. As someone who plays epic maps to conclusion, the fact this game has "unit stacking" makes the endgame laborious, and Civ V's new unit design is a big reason I love it so much.
But I just couldn't ignore the fact that, outside of that, this is the perfect Civilization game. No wonder Civ V had to go making so many radical changes, because it was the only way a proper sequel could be justified. Even the little touches, the icing on the cake, were the best. Think the Grammy award-winning theme song, or Leonard Nimoy's narration, which culminates early on with his "pig iron" intro.
2. Civilization V
In many ways, this should be number one. Like I said above, the way units are arranged on the map was a revolution, and a welcome one for those pursuing military campaigns. The Gods & Kings expansion was the most logical and complete execution of religion the series has yet seen, allowing it to emerge as the separate cultural force that it is, rather than having it act as some form of sub-state diplomacy. The leader screens are some of the most beautiful things PC gaming has ever seen.
But the diplomacy... oh, God, the diplomacy. The computer AI in Civilization has always been a fickle beast, but the longer you played Civ V, the more you realised your opponents were absolutely bonkers, and no amount of adjustment or difficulty sliding could fix that.
3. Civilization III
Implemented religion and, more importantly, national borders for the first time and did an admirable job of it. I know a lot of people who still think this is the best game in the series, and I appreciate why; you can almost look at it as the pinnacle of early Civ games, the perfection of the formula laid out by Sid Meier's original before IV and especially V started rolling up their sleeves and really messing with stuff.
Civ III also has, I think, the best map editor of the series. And even over a decade later, still looks damn pretty.
Yeah, I put the original above Civilization II. I shouldn't be, I know, and this is going to sound crazy, but do you know what I loved most about the original game? The full-screen imagery that for the most part has never been seen since. Think rioters marching in a city, or even better, the diplomacy system where you'd get to see medieval rulers in modern business suits.
That stuff was great. I miss that.
5. Civilization II
Sorry, Civ II. You were, and in many ways still are, an awesome game. Your Second World War scenario is maybe the most underrated joy to be found in the entire series, as it's good enough to stand as its own game. But somebody had to come last, and that somebody is you.