Last week 2K released Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri that takes the already legendary Civilization 5 template and sticks it in space. If you’ve been following Meier over his decades of great work, you already know Beyond Earth will be prudent, colorful and painstakingly tuned. It will welcome you with open arms, and give you enough content to keep your teeth sinking for the rest of your life. That is, after all, what his games do.
Sid Meier is an institution at this point. He’s perhaps the only designer who genuinely deserves to put his name on the box (sorry American McGee!) His run at Firaxis is indisputably one of the best, if not THE best careers anyone has ever put together in gaming. Remarkably, he seems to get better with age. Civilization 5 was a game-of-the-year candidate, and it seems like a given that Beyond Earth will be raking in that same praise this December. He’s changed the industry, multiple times, throughout the ‘80s, the ‘90s and the 2000s. I don’t think any other designer can claim that.
With that, we present to you the official Paste power-rankings of the games that bear Sid Meier’s name in the title. From the Amiga to Steam, he’s conquered it all.
(Note: We consolidated franchises into one blurb, so the Civilization entry refers to all the games in that series, and so on and so forth. We also put Colonization under Civ, because why not.)
I’m always going to prefer charming Sid Meier, where he takes his profound analytical chops and adapts them to aliens, or rose-colored swashbuckling. You know, those pulpy, middle-weight topics that could always attract posers like me. Railroads is a great franchise, we all know that, but the barrier of entry will always be a little high for me. That’s nothing to do with its intuitiveness, I’d just rather build a dynasty than a railroad network, especially considering the action goes down in real time.
Still, if you’re a train guy and you somehow haven’t picked up Railroads, well, I’m not sure you actually exist. Get on it.
These days Gettysburg looks like a precursor to the wonderful Total War franchise. Sure, it’s framed in that blasé 2.5D a la Red Alert 2 and Fallout, but the crux of the gameplay has you painting giant forward arrows on terrain and letting massive, bloody Civil War battles tear up your processor. Sid Meier is an avowed board game fan, and this always felt like his attempt to take those hobbyist Civil War tabletop battles and stick them right into Windows. It’s hard for me to recommend Gettysburg! outright, because it’s been so thoroughly iterated upon since its 1998 release. But it still stands as the designer’s truest war game outside of the much more abstracted clashes in the Civilization series. And honestly, I really can’t think of a Civil War game I’d want to play more than Gettysburg! Maybe that just speaks to a lack of competition, but it’s still worth mentioning.
Pirates! Is one of the few prominent Sid Meier games that strays away from the traditional, turn-based formula. You’re not traversing through hexes, or staring at spreadsheets, and most of the action plays out in real time. It’s a departure in mechanics, but also in tone. Meier usually focuses on concrete, institutional topics, from all-encompassing political history to the ins and outs of running a golf course, Pirates! on the other hand has you dancing with governors’ daughters, engaging in rock/paper/scissors swordfights, and sneaking past vegetated guards.
It’s a simulation of a fantasyland. Sure, you’re occasionally offloading rum and sugar for booty, but this is an interpretation of the 17th century Caribbean the same way Captain Blood is. I’m not going to pretend that I was even alive to play that age-old Amiga version, but the ’04 remake still holds a special place in my heart. It was just so easygoing, a rock-solid economic game set in a world that never truly existed. It proves that there’s a sublime compromise to be made between IL-2 Sturmovik and Goat Simulator.
This is my dark horse top-tier choice. I’ll forever maintain that SimGolf is one of the most inexplicably addicting games ever released. Mechanically it’s not much different from SimTower or SimCity or any of those other classic Maxis library-ware titles, but occasionally those games could feel like a professional mod tacked onto a previously existing system. That’s what I love about SimGolf—from its name you’d expect it to be culled from a long line of edutainment flotsam, but it’s actually a perfectly serene managerial cruise. It has that Roller Coaster Tycoon thing, where you see your muddled collection of holes slowly evolve into a goddamn golfing megaplex. The birds chirp, the polo-shirts grumble, and another hour slowly drains away. SimGolf could be administered to cut anxiety, it’s just that peaceful.
I know I said at the top of the article that we’re consolidating the franchises into single blurbs, but I think Civilization Revolution stands on its own.
Its influence can’t be understated. With a smaller, lighter punch that still had the density we’d come to expect from the namesake franchise, Civilization Revolution proved that simulation games didn’t have to be niche to still be great. It introduced us to a world where words like “hexes,” “siege power,” and “military victory” weren’t terrifying barriers, reinventing Firaxis’ design philosophy from the ground up. It’s the precursor to Sid Meier’s late-period golden age that we’re still basking. The craziest thing? Civilization Revolution came out on Xbox 360 and PS3, one of the first olive branches between that now waning schism between console gamers and PC gamers. It destroyed the odds, set the record straight, and paved the way for Civilization 5’s massive crossover success.
There’s not much that needs to be said about Alpha Centauri that won’t be repeated after the release of Beyond Earth, but let me take a minute to talk about Meier’s willingness to push for the extremes. He’s had plenty of quieter moments, in SimGolf and Pirates! particularly, but our favorite moments always come when he really buckles down. Civilization unveils a story you can only tell over the course of millennia; ancient enemies morphing into industrial partners, the grand reveal of the board after sending your first satellite into space, etc. Centauri could’ve just been a pasted-on palette-swap in the same tradition of the SimCity 3000s or Battlefield: 2142s of the world. But no, Sid Meier finishes the story of human civilization, and leaves you to the levers. You could succumb to the carnivorous planet or transcend the very nature of mortality itself. At their heart, Sid Meier’s games have always been about letting the player forge his own legacy, and he’s never left the door open wider than he did in Alpha Centauri.
Civilization 5 is either my first or second favorite game of all time, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever played that’s still churning out new sensations. I’m narrative gamer, I love dialogue and cut-scenes and scripting, but Civilization is absolutely undeniable, because Civilization is purely narrative. It’s 3 a.m., Greece has gobbled up all the city-states and your bullying of Cyprus isn’t going unnoticed, and Elizabeth is being a real dick about oil. It’s 3 a.m., you’ve bribed Genghis Khan into warring with all of my neighbors, and suddenly you realize that you’ve isolated yourself on a continent with a Mongol superpower. It’s 3 a.m., your tiny island nature is churning out culture at unprecedented rates, but the German navy just blew in.
It’s a world of frightening, hilarious, triumphant possibilities, and it’s always one click away. Civilization is what videogames are supposed to feel like.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.