Civilization III is more of an obsession than a game. Since the release of the original Civilization, Sid Meier has been the king of turn-based strategy games, a position he cemented further with Civilization II. The basis of all these games is to develop your chosen civilization through the ages to ultimately gain control of the world. You can achieve this goal in a variety of different ways. Originally being the first to blast off in the space race was the main way of winning the game or you could turn bloodlust on and go for complete military control by invading everywhere. Civilization III has added a number of extra ways to win.
This is a game of epic proportions, it can take days to complete a game and it really gets under your skin. Hunger, sleep and the need to use the toilet are all swept from your mind as you bombard that stubborn city with an endless wave of units. To start you choose the size of map and the age and weather conditions of your world. The bigger the map, the longer the game takes, if you choose an older world it will be more flattened and even than a younger one. Next you must choose a civilization, the starting choice in this game is really disappointing (less than in the Call to Power series) however if you can be bothered there is an editor which allows you to add civilizations and fiddle with the game rules. Each civilization starts with a bit of knowledge and they all have a specific mixture of attributes, which determine the direction you should go, to some extent.
Once you have gotten through the set-up screens the game begins. There are so many features and things to keep on top of that you may be unsure where to start. Civ has a steep learning curve and it can be a very frustrating game to play. Although I wouldn't usually bother myself, I would recommend actually reading a bit of the manual provided with the game before playing. If you have played an earlier Civ this will be instantly accessible for you, but if not, it is going to take you some time to get comfortable with the interface.
You begin with a settler and a worker usually. Settlers build cities and workers build improvements such as roads for the city. You view the world from above and everything is laid out in a huge grid, this allows you to see exactly what squares each city can use. The squares on the map typically have a variety of different resources on them, which give your city a variety of different bonuses. First priority is food, you must produce a surplus in order for your city to grow or to build settlers who can go off and found more cities. For production the cities produce shields and these determine how quickly you can build structures in the city. The various buildings allow different things, most commonly they give you bonuses in commerce, production, science or happiness, for example if you build a temple, people in the city will be a bit happier.
You´ll begin the game in despotism and through research you can develop new science and ideology. There are a variety of different government types and each has varying effects on your performance and abilities. To give an example in a democracy it is hard to keep your people happy but you make more money and can buy things which are building too slowly, in a communism the people are always content but if you want to speed up production then people will die.
To develop science you must build structures such as libraries and universities in your cities, building roads also increases science. You can decide how much of your income goes into research. It is vitally important to keep up with your opponents in this field as if they overtake you by too much it is very difficult to catch up again. You can also swap science and early on this is well worth doing.
Civilizations can also build wonders. Wonders have extra effects on your society and can trigger golden ages during which time your people become more productive. There are a range of wonders to build but only one of each can be produced and if someone beats you to it then you have lost the opportunity to build that wonder. The Pyramids give you a granary in every city, the Great Library gives you any advance that two other civilizations have and so on. The only wonder in Civ II that I would argue was essential was probably Leonardo's workshop, as it upgraded all your units automatically, in Civ III it just makes upgrading them half price so it is no longer a must. It is definitely worth going for the happy ones too, JS Bach's Cathedral for example will cheer up a number of your citizens in every city.
Diplomacy is another big part of the game. It is important to meet your neighbors as early as possible and unless you are building a decent army it is best to be friendly. Some of your opponents will be totally unreasonable and may invade with very little excuse so never leave a city without a military unit in it and keep them up to date or you may end up with a tank steamrollering your spearman. It is possible in Civ III to form decent alliances with people and a number of diplomatic options have been added since Civ II.
Civ II sat unchallenged on the throne for a number of years and is a game I have spent hours lost in. Several other games from this license have been released trying to recapture the success of Civ II but despite some interesting ideas, all failed. Most noticeably Sid Meier's release Alpha Centauri which followed on from the end of Civ II (if you win the space race then you blast off into space and start life on a new planet). Alpha Centauri was well received by some and it does offer the chance to play versus other humans online but personally I disliked the look of it and prefer to play as actual civilizations from history in a more realistic setting.
In Civ III in addition to the military conquest and space race options you can also win by being voted in as head of the UN, by dominating the world in terms of land and people or by cultural control of the planet. The attempt to develop the cultural aspect of societies into the gameplay is, for me, probably the best innovation in this game. If you have a fantastic, happy city with a variety of structures in it on your border, next to a Roman city perhaps, with a poor cultural rating then that city might decide to defect to your civilization, this is tremendously satisfying and offers a nice viable alternative to combat. These new rules also eliminate that irritating end game in which you have a handful cities left opposing you and yet you have to capture each one before victory, now you would win before that point from domination or culture.
Another great addition to this game is the luxuries and resources system, which has been overhauled. Now in order to build certain things you must have access to specific resources, for example if you don´t have saltpeter when you develop gunpowder then you cannot build guns and you had better either trade for it or take an enemy city which has it. The luxuries keep your people happy but it is potluck what falls within your boundaries, this adds importance to certain spots on the map. It also provides another way of keeping allies happy or another reason to warmonger. The resources needed to build particular scientific advances only appear when you make the breakthrough on that knowledge so there is no way of knowing at the start of the game whether you will have iron or coal (needed to build railways). This is a great idea and it works well, definitely adding further to the complexity and depth of the gameplay.
I really have to mention the graphical improvement as well, this game is a lot prettier than Civ II and the units have proper animations when moving, although they can cause framerate slowdown. The maps look much more lush and the objects are more easily identified although I must say that the strength of the game is the gameplay and the tactical possibilities the graphics are just background details. Overall the game does look much better and the sound is good too, although I would warn you to turn off the music before you reach modern times or your ears will be assaulted by a cacophony of crap modern jazz cheese.
One of the most enjoyable things about Civ is the exploration aspect, at the game start you can only see the squares around your first settler and you must explore the area and choose your city spots carefully. There are barbarian huts to explore too which can give you scientific advances, money, maps or a nasty ambush from some warriors. Often something catastrophic will happen during a game provoking a restart, though returning to the early exploration is not annoying because you have a new world of possibility before you and each game is genuinely unique.
It is tough to criticize a game that has brought me so many hours of enjoyment, but not that tough. I hate the AI in this game. There are certain things I cannot figure out about their behavior. For example when dealing with them they will almost always try to get more off you than you are getting off them, fair enough you may think, but there should be some difference in how they treat you if you are really tough or really weak. I have found that after half destroying an enemy civilization, going back to peace and asking for a straight swap of science that they will still expect more, how does this make sense? They also seem to be able to out produce you on higher difficulty levels no matter what you do and they retain high levels of scientific knowledge despite being in very unscientific government types. Still the AI aren't enough the spoil an amazing game.
Civilization III is a great game, it is the best turn-based strategy game available and I would recommend that you buy it. If you are already a fan of the series then you must get this; it is comfortably familiar but also has enough new stuff in it to merit the cost. I think it solves many of my problems with Civ II chiefly the long, boring, drawn-out endgames, which simply no longer occur in Civ III. Sid Meier has achieved the most complex and satisfying game currently available; nothing will challenge you like Civ does.