The original Civilization looks pretty primitive these days, but the basics of the game play were there from the beginning, which is why it is regarded as one of the all-time great games, and founded a dynasty that goes on to this day. I don’t plan to do an in depth guide to playing this game. The Civilization Wiki has a good in-depth guide which you can consult if you really want to dive in. But there are some principles worth bringing up, many of which continue to be useful through later versions of Civ.
First is the End of Turn. Civ is a turn-based game, which means that the action takes place in discrete turns. Why does turn-based work better for this game than “real time”? I think it is because it encourages you to think about what you are doing. That can even extend to micro-managing, which is how you become an expert. That doesn’t mean you are forced to do it, however. It is your game and you can do it any way you like. Sid says that major lesson he has learned in creating games is that it is the player who should be having the fun, not the developer. But one thing I always do is make sure my game will stop at the end of the turn, and make me end it by pressing a button. And I always do that because I may want to take some additional actions, such as modify my build queues in my cities, or engage in some diplomacy. In my version, which is part of the Civilization Chronicles box set from a few years back, you go to File–>Options, and click on End of Turn to turn this on. If you have a different version you might need to look for the option, but it should be there in all Civ games.
The next principle to get up to speed on is that in the earlier versions of Civ in particular the key unit is the City, not the Empire. or to put it another way, an Empire is nothing more than a group of cities. Everything happens in cities, and in a fairly simple way. Buildings are located in cities, and there is no limit to how many buildings you can build other than your money and resources. Each city has a production potential shown as the number of Shields it has available. Each shield = one unit of production. So a city with lots of shields available can build buildings faster than a city with only a few. You cannot transfer production from one city to another except in two cases. You can build a Caravan, useful for creating trade routes, and use the Caravan to add shields to a Wonder of the World project. This was a nice trick in Civ 1 and Civ II, but it was eliminated in Civ III. The other way is by building a unit in one city, moving it to another, and then deleting the unit there. Some part of the shields it took to build the unit will be added to your production. But this is a very wasteful to transfer production. I only use it when I need to “demobilize” after a war to save support costs.
Related to the idea of the city being the principle unit is that there is no real concept of national territory in Civ 1. You can march a unit right up to be next to someone’s city, park it there, and they may not do anything depending on the state of your relationship with them. If you are at war or hostile they may attack the unit, but not always. They may hope you will attack them and lose if they have fortified units behind City Walls.
Every unit has to be built in a city, so building a large army requires more cities. And every unit has to be supported by a city. Normally this would be the city that created it, but there are limits. Units need support in the form of production (shields), and for Settlers they also need food. If you run out of the needed resource you will get a message that the city can longer support the unit and it has been disbanded. One way to avoid this is to “re-home” the unit to another city. Just move the unit to new city, and when it is inside, press the “H” button, and now this new city will take over the support duties.
Military units have three numbers that define them. Your very first unit is a Militia unit you create shortly after settling your first city, and it is listed as (1,1,1). The first number is your attack strength, the second is your defense strength, and the third is your movement. This is not a powerhouse unit, obviously, but in 4000BC you aren’t likely to run into anything stronger. I generally build 3 militia units right away. One is to keep at home for defense, the other two are sent out to explore. You want to know what territory is round you, plan on sites for new cities, and most important, seek out the “Goody huts”. These actually have other names in different versions of Civ, but everyone always calls them goody huts. You may get 50 gold from visiting one, or discover “Scrolls of Ancient Wisdom” that reveal a tech. Best of all, you may find an Advanced Tribe that instantly creates a city joined to your civilization. But there is a potential problem in Civ I and Civ II, in that you may awaken a bunch of barbarians. Frequently they are weak enough to not be a danger, so it is always a risk worth taking. These first units can become a bit better if they become Veteran. You can become Veteran by being built in a city with a Barracks, or you have a chance of getting promoted if you win a battle. Veteran units are 50% stronger on attack and defense. You can get the ability to build stronger units through researching technologies. For instance, a good early defensive unit is the Phalanx (1,2,1), which is unlocked when you research Bronze Working.
Barracks are a good way to build Veteran units which are stronger, but there is a catch. There are two techs that wipe out your existing barracks, and they are Gunpowder and Combustion. Gunpowder unlocks building Musketmen, and Combustion unlocks building Tanks. They make all of your barracks obsolete and they are removed from the game. So expert Civ players know that the minute they start researching one of these technologies they should go through all of their cities and sell their barracks for 40 gold apiece. In Civ II they made a friendly change to have the game sell them all for you and save you the bother.
Now to money, i.e. gold. Sid Meier himself has said that the key to winning Civ is to focus on the money. You get money in several ways. First, gold is produced by trade that cities generate,and building roads helps to increase this. You can also develop trade routes once you have unlocked the technology for Trade by building Caravans and sending them to other cities. You get a small amount of gold when the route is established, then a little bit each turn. Early on, this isn’t a lot, but the longer the route is around the more gold it produces.. You can also sell buildings to generate gold, though never enough to pay back all of the production you put into them to begin with. And you can demand tribute from other Civs, though that depends on whether you are sufficiently stronger than them. And of course in the early game goody huts are important for this. While it isn’t a lot of gold they provide, it comes when gold is scarcest. This is important because every building you build requires maintenance, which for early buildings is one gold per turn, but it goes up for the more sophisticated buildings of later eras. Run short of cash, and buildings will get sold off to raise the money. Then there is how you allocate your revenue. It can be used to fund three things: your Treasury, your Science, and your Luxuries. Science is of course important since you can’t win without researching techs, and if you fall behind the AI it can get pretty bad. Luxuries are important for keeping your people happy, because if they get unhappy the city will revolt and all production will cease. And if you don’t restore happiness right away, your government will fall and your whole empire will be in anarchy. So how you allocate the revenue matters. Finally, you can take a citizen in a city and remove them from production and create a Specialist, and one of your options is a Tax Collector. Having a full treasury makes a lot of things possible. For instance, you can use a Diplomat unit to go into a foreign city and “bribe” it to revolt and join your Empire. This works best if you have a full treasury. And you can buy units and buildings. In the original DOS version there was a Buy button in the production screen, but in the Windows version you had to go to the City menu, where you would have a Buy Unit or Buy Improvement button depending on what was in the Production box.
Finally, some tips on Happiness. When you found a city, the citizens will tend to be happy, But as the city grows, some will be unhappy, and they will show as Red on the City screen. The number of happy citizens you can have before unhappy ones show up decreases as the difficulty level increases. You can increase the number of happy citizens in several ways. First, you can build buildings that increase happiness. Civ uses Religion as “the opiate of the masses” in this respect, so building a Temple, and later a Cathedral are good for this. A Colosseum is also helpful, but it has higher maintenance and lower effects than a Cathedral, so always choose Cathedral first. Another way to increase happiness is through building Wonders. Hanging Gardens, Shakespeare’s Theater, J.S. Bach’s Cathedral, Michaelangelo’s Chapel, Women’s Suffrage, and Cure for Cancer are all Wonders that either make more people happy or fewer people unhappy. And last of all, you can create a specialist called an Entertainer to make more people happy. In the City screen, where you see the squares that belong to your city, the ones with icons for trade, food, and production are the ones being worked by your citizens. Click on a square and that citizen will become an Entertainer instead. This is an icon that looks like Elvis (a running joke in Civ over various versions), and that means that instead of productively working producing food, etc. he is now entirely devoted to entertaining the others.
So, to sum up what Civilization does, and this applies to all versions really, it makes you balance many competing needs. You need to have a military to defend yourself, but you also need to do scientific research and build buildings to improve your cities. You need to keep people happy, and also make sure your Treasury is full. You need to explore the map because unexplored areas are where Barbarians are likely to come from. But a funny thing about all that: I fired up my cop[y of Civilization 1 to refresh my memory on some details since it had been some time since I played it. And the next thing I knew several hours had gone by. So even though the first version is pretty unsophisticated in comparison to later versions (I mostly play Civilization 6 now), it still has the addicting quality that makes you play “One…more…turn!”