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I've read from many different sources that I should be specializing my cities, however I'm unsure as to how exactly I should be doing this and my current "method" of specializing my cities doesn't seem to be working that well - I always find large generic mega-cities to be vastly more effective than any of my specialized cities.

For example, I tend to find that cities with low population don't produce much of anything unless I focus efforts on food (so that I have the population to work the surrounding tiles) and production (so that I can produce the buildings needed to specialize my city).

Conversely, although I know that I should be trying to produce buildings that provide a percentage bonus (e.g. to production or research) in those cities that have high numbers in the first place, whenever I look at the economy screen I tend to find that cities with higher population produce more of everything, and so in my larger cities I end up building everything (as they have the excess production required to do so).

The end result is that all of my cities look pretty much the same apart from size. How can I effectively specialize my cities?

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I also had problem with this. I would focus on certain things first like food first, then based on what it is already good at (surrounded by jungles=science, desert=gold/markets, mountains=production/units) but eventually I end up building every building also. Granted I play on 4(prince?) so I will be interested in someones answer. –  Mike Jun 11 '13 at 13:34
    
In general, you're always going to have a handful of farms, mines, and whatever tile improvements are needed by the terrain. In the remaining space you'll focus tile improvements based on how you want to specialise. More than that, however, you can specialise by your choice of buildings, wonders, and great people. Some wonders (often national) provide a %based bonus, so you want to build these in cities that have a lot of buildings/wonders providing that. Using great people to construct tile improvements will also help. –  Samthere Jun 11 '13 at 14:29
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Specialization is key to survival on higher difficulties where the opportunity cost of producing a new "thing" is very high. This doesn't mean you're going to completely ignore everything else and focus just on one thing per city, but it does mean you're going to change your city's priorities based on the city's specialization.

Starting Out

I tend to follow this formula:

Your first city should just generally be wherever you started. If you've got a starting military unit, explore your immediate surroundings with that unit before you move your settler. Your settler can typically move one tile and found on the same turn, so if there's significant bonuses you can put within your potential borders one tile away, take them.

Your second city should be founded somewhere near production bonus tiles, like hills and forests. Bonus points if you can land some Sheep, Cows, or Horses, and double bonus points if you can find Iron. Finding Iron takes science, which you might not have by the time you're ready to found your second city.

Your third city should be founded somewhere with significant gold potential. Shore tiles are good for this (but found on the coast so you can build the appropriate buildings to use them!), and many resources also provide gold.

Don't worry too much about optimizing the distance between your cities - move a bit further away if you can get some significant bonus tiles or if your starting location doesn't have much in the way of nearby hills. Better city locations are higher priority than squeezing every last tile into a city radius. Rivers are pretty good to found next to, as there are some buildings that can only be built next to rivers, and there is typically an abundance of tiles that are good for food production. Avoid expanses of Tundra, Snow, Desert, or Mountain tiles, as these are limited in their usefulness.

Beyond these three cities, you want to found new cities when you can secure a new Luxury resource (to offset the happiness hit), and hopefully at the same time secure new strategic resources or key areas of the map. Found when you can defend the new city, and when you can absorb the happiness hit.

Specializing

Okay, with that out of the way, let's discuss specialization.

There are two key things you're going to do to specialize your cities:

  • Build specialized improvements with workers
  • Build specialized buildings

Worker Improvements

Workers should prioritize building special improvements on special tiles whenever possible, especially Luxury and Strategic resources. Beyond that, I tend to build one of four improvements:

  • Near all cities, build at least some Farms. Ideally, these should be near rivers or on flood plains. Your capital should have more farms than the other cities, but every city should have at least 3 or 4.
  • Near production cities (like starting city #2 above), build Mines or Lumbermills - Lumbermills unlock late, but they let you keep the forest production bonus, so it's worthwhile to leave at least a couple of tiles that have forests unimproved. Hill tiles with forest are better off chopped down with mines on them.
  • Near your economic cities (like starting city #3 above), build Trading Posts. The neat thing about Trading Posts is that they can be built on forest tiles without removing the forest. This gives you more production from the tile at the expense of food.

Workers also need to establish efficient road links between all your cities - this is key to gold production, and key to surviving a military incursion.

City Buildings

Your science cities (ie, the capital) should be focused on increasing population and science. Many science buildings focus on the number of people in the city, so building things like Granaries and Aqueducts are key to boosting science output. Likewise, you won't have much science without Libraries or similar.

Your production cities (ie, #2) should be focused on cranking out military units. Thus, you need to build production increasing buildings (Workshop, Factory, etc) and military buildings (Barracks, Armory). As the difficulty ratchets up, you're going to be more inclined to buy the buildings so that you can focus on military. Without significant military, the AI will steamroll you for sure.

Your economy cities (ie, #3) should focus on gold, gold, and more gold. Markets, Banks, etc. Maintaining and increasing your population is a close second. Just below that is Science production.

Wonders will come along, and you should stick these in the cities that would benefit from stacking the bonuses. Similarly, great people should be assigned to build their special tile improvement near the corresponding specialized city. I sometimes will consume extra scientists or engineers to rush key research or wonders, though.

This is not to say that you shouldn't build Granaries or Aqueducts everywhere - population is important. And happiness buildings should be everywhere as well. At least some culture production in each city can be beneficial. But I'd urge you not to build a Library in your production city, or a Barracks in your economy city. These are just wastes of your production and gold per turn in some cases.

If you get to the point where you have all the key buildings built everywhere, it's probably time to consider expanding if you can. That means some military production to defend your new borders, more workers and a new settler. If you get to the point where you can't expand any further, it's clobberin' time. Crank up military production and go to war.

As the game progresses, your starter cities will start to flourish and may be able to take on a more general role. If/when this happens depends on the difficulty to a large degree. At lower difficulties, you'll find yourself massively overpowered very quickly, while at higher difficulties your military cities will probably crank units from start to finish.

But... But...

You might think "But I didn't build barracks in most of my cities, my units will be terrible!" - that's OK! Build siege units that will be racking up XP at your military/production cities, and build front line infantry meat grinder units at the others. You're going to lose units in a war, and keeping your low-cost "green" units at the front lines is a smart way to play.

There's also the concern of not building Markets or Libraries everywhere. These seem like no-brainers, but the impact of building them tends to be small outside of the cities that are designed to use them. For instance, a Market in a city with no trading posts is a waste. Similarly, if you haven't maxed out your population, a Library is going to produce a minuscule amount of science.

There's also the "City Focus" toggle, which I tend to ignore except in extenuating circumstances. Generally I'd suggest just leaving it at "Balanced" unless you're rushing production on something important (ie, military units or a wonder) or you're trying to avoid growth to halt the happiness penalty.

An Example

I started up a game at an advanced age so that I could demonstrate how I select city locations for my first two "specialist" cities. My capital is Constantinople (not Istanbul), and it is in a pretty good spot. I've got Wine, Marble, and Iron, with some Ivory nearby. It's also right on a river with a good amount of different tiles. This was my starting spot, and I give it a thumbs up.

Now I've got to pick two more spots. Here's the situation to my north and south:

North of the capital

South of the capital

I've circled in red the tiles I've picked as being good candidates. To my north, I've got Pearls and some more Iron, but there's not a real good amount of hills or forests. It's a decent spot, to be sure, and no doubt I will settle here eventually.

Northwest is some hills, but mostly it's desert. There's not a lot to recommend it.

Directly to my east there is just a vast plain with not a lot going on. I want to find some luxury or strategic resources to found near in addition to finding a "good spot" so I'll probably pass on this for now.

Southwest seems promising. Here I've got extensive hills and forests, plus Stone, Sheep, Horses, and Dyes. This is a pretty good location for my second city. I'd like a couple more hill tiles, but this will do.

To the southeast, I have another river, with Wine, Ivory, and eventually Stone and Deer. I'd like it better if I didn't already have Wine and Ivory, but perhaps I can sell the excess for some easy gold.

From here, I'll probably expand east as happiness permits. Farther to the northeast I've got an area overflowing with Iron, which will make a decent second military/production city. I might take some of the land to the north as well, but this is lower priority so close to my capital - it's unlikely anyone can claim this and defend it successfully.

If I can claim some land in the early game, that will make the later game a bit easier. My strategy tends to be conquer, conquer, conquer, so as long as I can carve out 4 or 5 cities, I'm probably good.

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Your bit about a "production bonus" from forests on hills is a bit bogus...forests on hills give +1 food -1 production, if you're looking for max production, you should chop the forest and mine the hill, getting a quick production bonus from chopping it, and then more production from the tile. That said, sometimes it's important to leave a few forests for the food bonus in areas with too many hills. In heavily forested areas, often it's important to chop forests to get farmland, but if there aren't many hills, that's when it's important to leave some of the forests for future production. –  Theodore Murdock Jun 12 '13 at 0:16
    
@TheodoreMurdock, I was going to be all "NUH-UH!" but then I went to check, and you're right, I was remembering incorrectly :P –  agent86 Jun 12 '13 at 1:10
    
I tend to avoid barracks entirely because you can often get the same levels of experience from barbarians, especially if you are rigorous about fighting them only with units with under 30 experience (the cap with barbarians) and plan to get as many attacks in before they die. (Sadly, they fixed the cheat where a unit could sit by the coast and get experience boosts from roaming barbarian galleys.) –  Steven Burnap Jun 12 '13 at 3:18
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@Justin, sure, although that might take me some time to prepare. In the meantime, you might go look at this question which has some decent answers about a specific scenario. –  agent86 Jun 12 '13 at 14:48
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@Justin, now with screenshots and a quick guide :) –  agent86 Jun 12 '13 at 23:35
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