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In response to a General Strategies question, @deceze commented that he'd recently won a cultural victory with just 2 cities and no real military vs. his main competitor's 40 cities.

I've always assumed more cities = better empire: if I have 40 cities I should be able to squash an opponent with 20, whether I focus on military, culture, or science. Is that wrong? I love the idea of micro-managing a tiny empire rather than wearily juggling lots of cities and units toward end-game. (This partly comes from my earlier question about avoiding a tedious end-game: a small empire is inherently less tedious.)

Is "Micro-Empire" a viable strategy for one or all of the victory conditions? If so, how do you pull it off?

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Is "Micro-Empire" a viable strategy for one or all of the victory conditions?

Micro-Empires don't work for all victories. Almost by definition, you probably won't win a domination victory with a micro-empire. To do so you would need to raze all cities you capture (to stay micro), which would just give your opponents space to expand, which makes your job harder. It would also be difficult to balance advancing your cities and cranking out military units without falling behind on both fronts. I think a minimum of 4 - 6 "core" cities is a must for a domination victory. It may be a great challenge to try it with two though.

Having said that, in addition to @WillfulWizards hints:

  • To stress the first point a little more: be Switzerland. Stay out of all conflicts, ignore all invitations to wars and pacts of secrecy. Only agree to positive deals. Listen to what the AI players are saying, they're rather straight shooters. Even if they ask you for contributions of gold with no return, if their intentions are good ("It's not going well over here, could you spare a little, I'll return the favor") it'll strengthen your relationship. If they demand, you already did something wrong (or you're up against a hostile AI) and should do your best to improve your relations.
  • Even so, you probably can't avoid a war forever, so dig in. Get as many defensive wonders as possible. The Great Wall, Himeji Castle and the Kremlin are great wonders to have if it ever comes to a war. Build no roads, or only those necessary to establish trade routes, to slow the enemy down in your territory as much as possible. Adopt defensive policies.
  • Settle in a good spot near as many city-states as possible (this obviously requires some luck). If you stay allied with them they'll help fend off invading forces.
  • Go for food and growth in the beginning (build farms), transition to gold/culture/science mid to late-game when your cities are huge (replace farms with trading posts/landmarks/academies).
  • Hand-tweak citizen allocation, at least lock certain fields like production and set a focus for the remaining citizens.
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You can't use roads in enemy territory. "Roads and railroads cut a unit’s movement cost in friendly or neutral territory." - Manual. I still agree with the point that fewer roads are better, since they will cost less to maintain. –  WillfulWizard Oct 11 '10 at 23:47
    
@Willful Oh, interesting. I was reasonably sure they'd provide at least some benefit. Or was that Civ 4? –  deceze Oct 11 '10 at 23:57
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If I recall correctly, roads do not work for enemies in Civilization 4 (certain) or 3 (less sure). I have no idea about 2 or 1. They certainly work for enemies after the territory is conquered, in any of the series, but with a micro-empire, you should not be playing as though you are going to lose ANY cities. Also, roads have been usable by spies in previous games, but of course there are no spies/espionage in Civilization 5. –  WillfulWizard Oct 12 '10 at 0:04
    
You could try for a domination victory with a micro empire by building an elite strike force, waiting for an AI to take everyone else's capital (except yours) and then swooping in to take his for the victory. Remember, it doesn't matter who holds which city, only that you're the last with your capital. –  bwarner Oct 12 '10 at 1:39
    
@bwarner This sounds like a fun challenge. It'll depend a lot on luck and the physical position of the "last man's" capital though. Also, this last man will be the one that conquered all the other civilizations, so will have quite a tough military him/herself. If you have a strong enough military to defeat him/her, you're probably big enough a threat to be attacked first. I may try this once though. :D –  deceze Oct 12 '10 at 2:52
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A lot of what I said in an answer about winning a cultural or diplomatic victory (albeit in Civilization 4) applies here.

Suggestions I have off the top of my head (I'll add any more I think of later):

Make Allies, Not Enemies

Make as many allies as you can, buying off other nations/city-states if you need to. Avoid making enemies even more! If you're never at war, then you don't need a military. Number one suggestion for winning another nation's favor: if they demand something, give it to them if you can! Techs and money are less important than friends.

Invest in Culture

In Civilization 5, getting cultural policies is easier with a smaller empire. (The cost goes up for each city) So, cultural is probably a great way to go for a small empire, regardless of your win condition. Policies just make your empire better.

Victory

The victory conditions that seem easiest for this style of play are Cultural, since policies are cheaper, and Diplomatic, since you are buying off everyone making allies anyway. The policies only help with that, and mean you can play in one style and go for whichever victory you can manage first.

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I won a Domination victory with only 3 cities as Japan on Prince level - my knights and samurai were running around puppeting capitals and burning every other city they captured. So it's definitely possible, if "3 cities" meets your definition of "tiny".

Remember that puppeting a city doesn't make it count as part of your empire for purposes of "culture needed to acquire next policy".

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