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How many workers do I need for a given number of cities in the early stages of Civ 4, say when I have around 5 cities and the biggest is around size 5?

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Consider the question differently: Are all of my citizens working fully improved squares?

A quick rule of thumb from my experience is to have one work per city, always working for that city (unless something like urgent need for a resource arises). Then watch the city and consider: is the worker keeping up with city growth? If he's not, build another in that city, and it'll help slow the growth and gain you a worker.

You will also sooner or later want 2 or 3 workers connecting cities with roads, building forts, etc... things not linked to one city. You can often gain these when cities stop growing, cause that city's worker can actually finish enough squares! Then he can move on to other work. If not, you can always just build a worker for that specifically.

All of this is if you want the BEST cities. Keeping every citizen working a fully improved square is the ultimate goal, but if you spend your resources on that, you're not doing something else. There are many ways to play Civ4, and having the best cities is only one of them. Prioritize accordingly.

My estimate from the info you gave: 7 or 8 workers is the most you'll need. 1 per city, and 2-3 on national road detail/helping with a fast growing city. You probably don't need the 8th if one of your other cities has stopped growing and the worker finished.

Finally, remember that one of the best ways to build workers is to take them from your enemies!

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+1 for detailed explanation of the variables to consider. I have also found that roughly 1 worker per city is the sweet spot. –  sjohnston Jul 28 '10 at 17:44
    
I've tried to keep 1 worker per city, but I've been finding that as city growth slows the cities are expanding more slowly than the workers can build improvements, especially once restrictions due to happiness and health kick in. That means workers are building unnecessary improvements. –  DJClayworth Nov 10 '10 at 19:52
    
@DJClayworth You may simply play differently than I do, and so need less. I like my cities to expand as quickly as possible so I 1) build cities where they have lots of food resources, 2) focus on improving food resources first almost exclusively, 3) commonly build granaries, 4) Keep my cities happy an healthy. Still, some cities finish growing or only grow slowly. Just count them as needing half a worker each, and send him off to build roads. In short, if you're building unnecessary improvements, that's how you know you've built too many workers. Build less next time. –  WillfulWizard Nov 10 '10 at 19:59

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