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The lineup of playable nations in the Civilization series
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The Civilization series' nation lineup reflects their creators' effort to arrive at a good compromise between at least 4 factors:

1) delivering what the Western general audience (i.e. people not well-versed in history) expected
2) educating the general audience about history

The first two factors are the most important, and definitely at work when Microprose was creating the first Civ game.

3) meeting the demands of Civ fans
4) meeting the demands of potential consumers based on their nationalistic sentiments

Civ's success created its own fan community. Members of the community (who tends to be people with a more than passing interest in history) naturally have their demands that the creators can't ignore completely.


Here is my analysis of the series' choice of nations, with attention paid to the difference between core games and expansion packs (and in the case of Civ5, DLCs).

Note:
It's obvious that to the creators, some groups of nations are not considered as important as the rest, and as a result they are given one "slot" in each game, with different nations chosen to fill in this entry each time to represent the whole group. This decision is consistent throughout the series, and expressed most clearly in Civ3's Civilopedia description of Iroquois:

Unique Unit: the Mounted Warrior

In Civilization III, the Iroquois represent all the tribes of Northern Native Americans. Though the Iroquois rarely used horse-mounted warriors in combat due to the wooded terrain they usually fought in, many other tribes frequently made use of them (notably the Sioux and other tribes of the Great Plains), and to great effect.

In this article, these "slots" are distinguished using italics.


Lists of nations in each Civ game can be found at Wikipedia, linked below. For comparison, also see Rise of Nations' list of civs.

Civ1, Civ2, Civ3, Civ4 (C4W, BtS), CivRev, Civ5 (DLC)
RoN


Group 1: Core
6 "ancient" civs: Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China, Aztec
6 "not ancient" civs: USA, England, France, Germany, Russia, Africans

These 12 civs are present in every Civ core game, including CivRev.

In Civ1, the 7 "ancient" civs (the 6 civs above plus Babylon) have original music themes composed by Jeff Briggs, while the other 7 civs' themes are either: in the case of Western civs, adapted from existing music, or in the case of Mongolia and Zulu, mostly percussion sounds. Civ2's soundtrack consists mostly of arrangements of the "ancient" themes.

Zulu was traditionally used to represent the Sub-Sahara Africans, much to history buffs' dismay. Their sentiment is not unreasonable: in the Civ series, the playable factions (bluntly referred to as "Empires" starting with Civ4) are supposed to be nations who fits the common definition of "civilization". Throughout the Sub-Sahara region there are empires who make much better fit for this definition, yet Zulu was chosen in the first Civ only because of their relative familiarity in Western pop culture, and stayed in the series partially due to the legacy of the first game.

In the Civ4 core game, the Africans are represented by the Mali Empire. In the Civ5 core game, it's the Songhai Empire, which historically can be said to be Mali's successor.

One should also note that by the same logic, it doesn't matter that the Aztec Empire came after the Mongol Empire: in Civ1 (and other core games), Aztec is a representative of the idea of Mesoamerican civilization, putting it into the group of "venerable ancient civs".


Group 1a: Later additions to the core
Japan, Arabia

These 2 civs has been in every core game ever since their respective debut in Civ2 and Civ3:PtW, including CivRev.

It's highly unlikely Firaxis will ever create another Civ core game without Japan, seeing both its historical significance and prominence in pop culture. And considering the great disparity between its place in history and pop culture, I believe "educating the audience" is a major factor in Arabia's apparent inclusion into the Civ canon.


Group 2: Semi-core
Mongolia, Babylon, Spain, Persia

These 4 civs have a complicated relationship with the core games.

Babylon used to be part of Civ1's "ancient" group, yet has been phased out of them since Civ4. In Civ4, even its music theme "Hammurabi's Code" has been given to Persia. Babylon's relative obscurity in pop culture is definitely at play here.

The Mongols are in a half-way state, with factors both for and against their inclusion in a core game: they are highly iconic, yet not "civilized" enough. Thus Civ3 and Civ5 can do without Mongols at launch.

The Spanish faces a similar situation, being iconic yet less important than Britain, France, Germany or Russia.

Persia, first appeared in Civ2, has been in every numbered Civ's launch roster. However, it's a telling sign of Persia's (and Mesoptamia's in general) pop culture status that CivRev, the game that tried the hardest to appeal to the general audience, includes Mongolia and Spain without adding Babylon or Persia.

On the other hand, Firaxis clearly do think there's value in these civs' iconicness, as proven by Babylon and Mongol being added as initial DLCs for Civ5 (i.e. they are actually created at the same time as the core game) rather than expansion pack civs. Evidences inside Civ5's files have led me to believe that Spain and Inca would soon follow.


Group 3: Outlying
Carthage, Ottoman, Viking, Celt, Inca, Native AmericansSoutheast Asia

These 7 civs have all been featured in a core game, but their places in core games are not guaranteed.

The common element between these civs is "flavor": they look interesting and exciting, but aren't deemed really that important.

The Native Americans are represented by Iroquois in Civ3 and Civ5, the Sioux in Civ2. Both Civ3 and Civ4 makes no pretense that they are using one nation to represent all the native peoples of North America.

The Southeast Asia region is first added in Civ4:BtS in the form of Khmer, and represented in Civ5 by Siam.


Group 4: Fringe
Dutch, Portugal, Byzantine, Sumeria, Korea, Maya

These 6 civs have all been featured in more than one expansion packs, but never in a core game.

It's probable that the most important factor in Korea's inclusion is trying to appeal to the Korean market. Similar efforts have been made in other strategy titles (as evidenced by one Sandy Petersen post on the Age of Kings Heaven forum, which I couldn't find now), and Civ actually enjoys some popularity there. However, Civ5 has begun to use its new City State system to represent small nations, and Seoul is on its City State list. This makes Korea's future prospect to be included as an Empire in Civ5 uncertain.


Group 5: Uncertainty
Hittite, Zulu, Ethiopia, Holy Roman Empire / Austria

These have only appeared in one expansion pack so far.

While Civ4 used Mali to represent Africans at launch, 2 more African civs are added in BtS, the returning Zulu and the new-to-Civ Ethiopia. How many African civs does Firaxis deem necessary? Would Zulu return again in Civ5? The answers remain to be seen.

C3C contains an entire hidden civilization of Austria, led by Charles V. This very inappropriate choice of leader (as people have argued, Maria Theresa would be the perfect choice) has been explained in a post on the CivFanatics forum: Austria was originally made for the "Age of Discovery" scenario, and became a hidden civ when they eventually removed it from the scenario.

Civ4:BtS's most infamous addition might be the Holy Roman Empire, led by Charlemagne. My explanation of HRE is that it's their way of putting Charlemagne in Civ4. If Civ1's Greek leader wasn't Alexander, and Firaxis wanted to add Alexander in game, so they introduced the new civ of Macedonia, that would be a similar scenario (except it makes more sense).

Curiously, in Civ1's Designer's Notes, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley listed Charlemagne among elements they wanted to include yet didn't.


Comparison: Age of Empires and Rise of Nations
Both the Age and RoN series can claim a traceable lineage from Civ, and sometimes turn back to influence Civ itself (for example, AoE2:AoK popularized the trebuchet siege weapon and Chu-Ko-Nu, and RoN popularized the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing). Their approach to choosing playable nations are different from Civ. Here I'm just going to point out a few particularly interesting cases.

AoE2:AoK calls Arabia the Saracens (a word medieval Europeans used to refer to Arabs), and gives the Muslim civs and Byzantine the same architecture.

With both RTS series, at least before AoE3, the re-useability of art assets is an important consideration. This is stated by Sandy Petersen (at Age of Kings Heaven forum) as the reason for not including Inca in AoE2: the Inca architecture is entirely different from Maya and Aztec (RoN ignored this difference), and may be the reason for India's very notable absence in the Age series until AoE3.

(AoM's reason for not including Indian Mythology, other than considerations of pop culture, is most likely that they were trying to avoid offending practioners of Hinduism.)

RoN follows from earlier Civ by not including Arabia, despite the presence of Muslim architecture in the game. The Africans are represented by Bantu (a very large ethnic concept which includes Zulu) and Nubia (roughly equivalent to modern day Ethiopia). Babylon is not in RoN, just like in later Civ games.
The RoN expansion pack, Thrones and Patriots added Dutch, USA, Persia, India, Iroquois and Lakota (an ethnic concept which includes the Sioux). Interestingly, Persia and India share an architecture style (which is decidedly Indian), Iroquois and Lakota share a style which combines Iroquois longhouses with Lakota tipis, and USA uses a unique architecture style made of wood and brick.

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