I'm 450 turns into a game on Immortal on Civ 5. It's a scenario I set up where it's a giant continents map, with me versus one Immortal AI. The only victory allowed is domination.
The whole time, I've been having a huge amount of difficulty with barbarians and happiness. (I do not have Raging Barbarians turned on.) The barbarians have been hammering me, often getting more advanced units way before I do. (Now that I have artillery, it's largely under control.) However, at no point in the game has it been safe to scout around, and for most of the game it wasn't safe to be on any of my borders. (I'd have to constantly pull workers away from their projects to prevent them from being captured.) Building a new base requires a large push to secure a new area.
Happiness has been difficult, too. I got the social policies that let defensive buildings and science buildings add +1, as well as garrisoned units, and I'm building all the other +happiness buildings I can find, but I can never get a surplus of more than 6. Most of the time I'm hovering around 0 or 1, which means that if the pop goes up I'll be negative for a while until the next +happiness building completes. This has put a huge damper on my expansion. Am I managing the happiness wrong? Or is it just very difficult to stay positive on Immortal? (It would be easier if there were friendly AI, I suppose, with whom I could trade for luxury resources.)
These two factors combined mean that I'm barely to the Industrial era in year 2025. Am I doing something catastrophically wrong in handling barbarians and happiness?
Update: I've expanded to around 10 cities, and my social policies have been all of Honor, most of Liberty, some of Rationalism and one Commerce. (Really, without Honor, I would have been completely overrun by barbarians.)
How many cities do you want for a "small, focused empire"? 3-4?