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I am pretty new to Civilization 5, played no more than maybe 4 or 5 games. What is a solid strategy I can use against the AI that does not only help me to win the game but also teaches the mechanics a little? By that definition I want to avoid a strategy that says boost X to a ridiculous amount and you can overrun a single opponent before middle ages kick in. Even if it works, I guess it will not teach me anything really and misses the goal of this question.

The strategy must not be fine grained enough so that it could beat the game at highest difficulty. If it can win the game on "Prince" difficulty level I am already satisfied. If a certain setup (number of opponents, maps size, race, etc.) has proven to be especially beginners friendly, please mention that setup as well.

Edit: To clarify the question a little more I will describe my current play style. I choose a race in the beginning and say to myself - hey, I have a bonus in the area X, I should focus on X. The longer the game runs the more I realize that I have no idea how to focus on X and what areas I should ignore because they are not important. I end up clicking the options that are the most shiny, although they have no synergies with my other actions so far. This leaves me much weaker than I could be with proper planing.

That's why I am looking for a strategy that is clearly focused on a specific goal and shows which areas I should invest in to utilize this strategy.

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2 Answers

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Early Game Strategy

Your starting location will probably have quite a bit of food, which will make it a good location to focus on population growth by building farms and other population increasing structures. Then start to prioritize culture and science here. Generally I focus on trying to get the relevant technologies to determine where Iron is located, because it's an important early-to-mid game strategic resource.

Scout with your initial unit, and try to find ruins, as well as determine how much land and what kinds of resources you have available. If you've got close neighbors, war is likely in your future, so you may need to adopt the Honor cultural policies. If you've got lots of land, focus on Liberty cultural policies. If there's not a lot of land, and you've got no close neighbors, focus on Tradition.

Your second city should be built when your first city is at around population 3 - 5. Build it in a hilly or forested region, but try also to incorporate nearby tiles that contain special resources. Focus on building mines and production/military enhancing buildings.

When your military is weak, or new technology makes better units available, start cranking out units until you have around 2 per border city, and then build at least 2-4 ranged or artillery units per border with another civ. Your second city should focus almost exclusively on production, so if your military strength is good for your technology level and known nearby enemies, you may want to consider building a wonder or two.

After you get to at least about 3-5 population in both cities, found a third city. This time, look for plains, grassland, and special resources. Focus this city on economic and scientific output.

Beyond this point, my general strategy tends to diverge depending on what the state of the game is. Ideally, by your third or fourth city, you've researched enough in order to be able to detect iron, and you should prioritize building a city near an iron deposit. You can continue growing by founding new cities, so long as you keep an eye on your treasury, military, and happiness.

Mid-Game Strategy

At this point, it's time to stop and consider what the state of the game is.

WAR! uh! What is it good for? Expanding your borders!

If you've got close neighbors, try to land grab between you to secure contested resources, and begin preparations for war. Your production city should have buildings that boost initial unit experience. You may need to shift your capital to military production, or perhaps found your 4th or 5th city in a production-heavy area.

Focus your technology to research Catapults, and then build at least 2 or 3, but depending on how wide your shared borders are, you may require more. You'll also want at least 3 or 4 of the strongest melee units you have available, and hopefully the Great General from the Honor policy tree.

When you've amassed your army, place a catapult in each of your border cities, with melee units in the hexes that face your enemy. Then, declare war on your neighbor. Now wait. Do nothing until their army marches out to your territory - and then bombard them with your catapults. They'll be damaged enough that you can pick them off with your melee units at your leisure. When they start to beg for mercy, push into their territory and steamroll them. Depending on how the war is going, (and your civ's happiness) you might opt for peace eventually, but in the general case you want to wipe them out and take their capital if you can. I tend to puppet captured cities to avoid a major negative happiness hit.

Your technology focus should be primarily on better military units, but don't forget that as you conquer, you're going to need significant happiness improvement buildings. Additionally, you can't neglect science or you'll be lost in the arms race.

Expansion - it just keeps getting bigger!

If you've got nothing but open space surrounding you, focus on expanding to take resources nearby while maintaining firm control of your happiness. All these extra resources will give you major bonuses to production and science, but your required culture for next level will increase dramatically. Continue to focus your cities depending on their location (either population, economy, or production), but be sure to prioritize happiness generating buildings so that you don't outgrow your ability to sustain your civilization.

Eventually, you should encounter neighbors, or your science output will dwarf your opponents and you'll be in a good position for a late game science victory. Stay prepared for war by keeping your cities defended and your units up to date. You can trade excess resources to your neighbors for money to fund your other projects during this phase as well.

Technology wise, prioritize techs that give you city improvements, especially bonuses to science. You can take a small science lead and turn it into a much larger one if you spend your early science points wisely.

Camping - it's a Legitimate Strategy!

If you've got little land but no neighbors to speak of, you're probably on an island. Prioritize becoming ocean-worthy with your technologies, and focus on Culture in the meantime. The cultural bonuses are worth having, and you can use the fact that cultural policies are easier to gain with smaller civlizations to your advantage. Snap up as many as you can!

If you're at a disadvantage (ie, you've got a small island whereas your opponents all have more land) - try to settle a larger island as soon as you can. No amount of small-civ culture bonus will make up for the fact that more resources and more cities gives you a significant advantage. If you're all on tiny islands, try to be strategic where you settle, so that you don't end up with cities that aren't really contributing anything but are draining your happiness.

Late Game Strategy

By this point, you should already have a pretty good idea about how you're planning to win. If you've dominated several of your neighbors, continue down a military path and stomp anyone in your path. If you've got several of the cultural trees locked down, focus on cultural victory.

If you've got a big landmass and enemies are too far away to wage war effectively, you've got some options. Diplomacy works best if you've got a large amount of cash. Build the United Nations, and then prior to the election, bribe all the city-states you can find. If you can get them to be your allies, your election is a lock. If this isn't an option, focus on science and build the spaceship.

Note that as you grow closer to victory, the AI is going to try to stop you by any means necessary. Keep your military power up with the same mix of units - ranged siege units defended by melee units. Be ready to fight wherever you have borders.

Conclusion

Hopefully this gives you a general strategic overview of the game. This is not the only way to play, but I've found it to be successful not only in Civ 5, but also in several other games in the series previously. I haven't said a single word about Wonders or Great People, for instance, but you should be able to figure out what to prioritize based on which of the strategy paths you are following.

Specialization of cities is the #1 thing I learned that took me from "intermediate" player to "advanced" player in the Civ series. Don't build all the structures in all the cities, lest you bankrupt yourself. Focus cities by choosing the correct tiles to found them on in order to maximize the utility of individual buildings within the city. Also, be strategic about placing your cities so that they can benefit from resource tiles.

To maximize score, you should be aiming for a domination victory (secure all capitals), as it requires the fewest amount of tech to pull off, so you can do it relatively early in the game. When you get good at waging war, you should be able to conquer a neighbor almost every time you hit a new technology level for your siege and melee units.

However, Civilization is a game where there's not one "right answer" - so play it the way you find the most fun!

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+1: Amazing answer, thx a lot! I like how you describe what to look for and the deviations based on the surroundings. I will print it out and keep it close during my next games. I am sure that it will improve my game significantly =). –  Demento Feb 21 '12 at 15:32
    
@Demento, I could go on for several more pages of the nuances of unit upgrades, city states and such, but I think this is a good starting point, at least :) –  agent86 Feb 21 '12 at 15:38
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A strategy for a beginner playing on Prince, eh? How about ye olde Cultural Victory?

It's straightforward enough... build 3 total cities. Build enough military to defend them. Build a bunch of wonders. Litter the landscape with landmarks from great artists.

I recommend France for this (the bonuses are simple and not distracting). Egypt (fast monuments) or Persia (rocking golden ages) also will work.

When things get rolling, you should get a new policy every 9 to 11 turns. If your policies take 20 turns, you're not doing it right.

Commonly, I'll see ~500 culture from my capital and ~150 culture from my other cities.

To get landmarks, you need Great Artists. To get Great Artists, you need artist points. You get most of your artist points from assigning artists to work culture building slots. You'll also get a few artist points from certain wonders.

Social Policies

Tradition

Initial pick

  • Bursty boost to culture (+3 in capital). While technically less culture in the long run by itself than from Liberty (+1 per city and reduce policy costs) and Honor (+2 per city) - the capital can get multipliers to even this out.

Tier1

  • Aristocracy can wait until you are close to starting your first wonder.
  • Legalism - I typically pick this up as soon as I can to unlock the tier2 picks. Some people like to wait so they can get free temples. If you have fewer than 4 cities, don't worry... Monuments will be constructed automatically as you build new cities.
  • Oligarchy can wait until you have spare units to garrison and/or are under attack.

Tier2

  • Monarchy - more gold and less Unhappy.
  • Landed Elite - More food in capital. This can wait if your happiness is low, or if you are about to build a settler in the capital. Otherwise, pick it before Monarchy!

Final pick

  • More food everywhere! Oligarchy normally isn't worth an early pick by itself, but this bonus makes it worth it.

Piety - it's a grab bag of picks, look it over. About half of them have culture bonuses. Note: Free Religion gives you a free policy!!

Freedom - Wonders give more culture, double specialists from the point of view of food and happinesss. But the real winner is the Final pick - 100% bonus culture from your Landmarks. 5 landmarks = 30 * 2 = 60 culture before city modifiers.

Going for a culture win, you need to pick two more trees and complete them.

Wonders

The Louvre is amazing. Sistine Chapel is very very good.

Great Wall is a nice defensive bonus if you can get it. Hanging Gardens, Notre Dame, Taj Mahal are good for happy and food bonuses.

StoneHenge and Oracle are ok - but they are so early that I have trouble beating the AI's to them. Oracle has a free policy!!

Sydney Opera House and Cristo Redentor are nice, but come very late. By the time they're researched, you should have almost all your policies.

Eiffel Tower will give you a ton of happy, but at that stage in the game it doesn't really matter.

Outside of the above wonders, the others are all ok (they give some culture).

  • Don't slack your military to the point where you lose cities. You should feel safe at all times.
  • Don't slack on your basic culture buildings.
  • Build money buildings if you're earning less than ~10 gold per turn.
  • Don't slack on food, happy and science buildings. (if you do, you'll fall behind the science race with your small population and small city count)
  • With all those priorities out of the way - make wonders.

Science

There's the game before Civil Service and the game after... Civil Service gives you:

  • Pikemen - very powerful infantry for those with no iron
  • +1 extra food for river farms (that's huge!)

You aren't trying to lead the tech race in terms of number of technologies. You're usually trying to get the missing piece of the puzzle to build a wonder. Generally, you want to push deep into the tech tree to get to the next wonder or military unit before the AI's. If they don't have the tech to build a wonder yet - they can't steal that wonder away from you.

Sometimes you'll do remedial research to unlock basic capabilities. Do you have iron? only one way to find out.

Military

At the start, your city is secure. Go exploring with the warrior, but consider bringing him back if you build a worker before a second military unit. Exploring is just for finding citystates (gold reward), ruins (random bonuses), and natural wonders (happy).

My main force consists of spearmen -> pikemen -> riflemen, with a couple musketeers -> riflemen.

  • You should always have 2 or 3 units per city. More if the Germans are your neighbors.
  • There are few problems that three protected cannons/artillery can't solve.
  • 5 units with good management can kill 50 units.
  • Learn the line of sight rules!
  • Build ships for fun and natural wonder hunting.
  • Since you aren't trying to conquer people, you don't have to worry about splitting your forces between attack and defense.

If you happen to take an AI's city - raze it or gift it to avoid the culture penalty. Don't attack city-states or AI capitals - you can't raze those. Do liberate city-states from the AI if you have time and inclination.

Diplomacy

Cultural victory is the fastest victory possible. This means you only have two paths for defeat:

  • Someone took your cities! (don't let that happen).
  • Someone beat you to the cultural victory.

You can see from Diplomacy Overview -> Global Politics which leaders have which wonders and policy counts. If someone is building your wonders, it might be tempting to go over there and put a stop to it.

There is another way - get some of the militeristic AI's to be friends with you, and get them to declare war on the upstart.

The rule to make friends is simple enough. If you want the AI to like you, you make deals which are bad for you! Give them open borders for nothing. Give them spare luxury goods for nothing. Give them whatever they ask for when they beg.

Don't be afraid to give an AI open borders - if the AI declares war on you, all of its units are moved out of your territory at that point.

If you have a bunch of surplus gold, start recruiting city-states. Start with the cultural ones of course.

Research agreements can give you a nice science boost. Make sure to avoid sharing that boost with an AI that is going to use it to steal your wonders!

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It sounds like you have some experience with this strategy. Up to which difficulty level is this approach feasible? Am I wrong that a island map is especially good for this strategy because my territory is easier to defend or is this thinking flawed? –  Demento Mar 6 '12 at 11:25
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@Demento I have used this on difficulty 5 (king). More civilizations = more competition for wonders. I almost always play on Pangaea... I think that with only three cities you may get hammer starved and would want the cities to be as much on land as possible. You also need a bunch of land for your landmarks. If you're going for the Syndey Opera House (I don't usually), you need at least 1 coastal city... I'm unable to answer the need for greater defense on higher difficulties. –  David B Mar 6 '12 at 14:26
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