TL;DR: How do you design a ruleset for a Civ-style TBS game that prevents city smallpox from being a profitable or viable strategy?

Long version: Civ-style games are pretty great. Bringing a civilization from cradle to grave is a great endeavor, and practicing diplomacy with hard-line human players is fun and challenging. In theory.

In practice, however, many of these games has, especially in multiplayer, exactly one viable strategy: City smallpox, a.k.a. infinite city spread, a.k.a. covering all available space with 1-citizen cities, packed as tight as they will go. I suppose this could count as emergent gameplay, but still; it could hardly be considered to be in the spirit of the class of game.

The Civilization series, of course, is stuck in their more or less fixed rule sets, established with Civilization. Yes, there have been major changes in some respects, but the rules pertaining to city building and maintenance have stayed pretty similar.

So the question, then: If you build a ruleset for a TBS from the ground up; what rules should be in place to prevent Infinite City Sprawl from being a viable strategy?

Or should ICS be a viable strategy?

  • \$\begingroup\$ You are oldschool, I haven't heard it referred to as smallpox in a long time. Respect ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – drxzcl
    Nov 4, 2010 at 9:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ In Freeciv/CivII you may increase the settler population cost: it's not a real solution but it helps. Some other answers are much better though. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Nov 4, 2010 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lo'oris: Indeed; increasing the cost of the settler is a partial solution; but it only treats the symptoms, not the disease; and it leads to a bit of a plot hole: If I send two "guys" two squares over; why does only one of them arrive? In early game this might make sense, but later on it's pretty damning. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 14:44
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'd suggest making this question community wiki. There might be a good answer to "what rules should be in place?", if someone does or has done a real analysis of many 4X games (unlikely), but whether it should be a viable strategy is definitely subjective. \$\endgroup\$
    – user744
    Nov 4, 2010 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Joe Wreschnig: That last bit isn't really part of the question per se; it's more of a lead-in. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 15:29

6 Answers 6


ICS could be a viable strategy, but the problem is that

  1. It is usually much much much more powerful than non-ICS. This gives the player no choice as the challenges become larger.
  2. It places an unusual strain on the player because he needs to manage 10-20 times as many cities as in a non-ICS scenario.

You can try and combat ICS the "civilization way", with the stick. I do not think this has worked particularly well so far, but these are the popular measures.

  • Efficiency. More cities means more lost revenue.
  • Unhappiness. For every city you add more people become unhappy.
  • Wonders that require you to build building X in every city.

I think it's better to tackle the root causes that encourage ICS in the first place.

The main reason for ICS is that many essential resources are city-based. You have one build-queue per city for units. You can only have one of a certain building (and associated bonusses) per city. Resources needed for city growth scale super-linearly, it takes more food to get from 10 to 11 than to get 4 cities from 1 to 2.

I think that the real solution to eliminate ICS is to eliminate these special properties of cities. De-couple build-queues and cities (let them build "workshops" directly on the map as improvements?), allow multiple buildings of the same kind in a city (but not more than 1 per square?) etc. With these mechanics in place, the user does not need to ICS. The reason to found another city is dictated more by strategy and geography (as it should!) than resource min-maxing.

Another (better?) option is to get rid of cities all-together and just have squares that can be improved, yield resources and can populated (perhaps as an additional resource). But this requires re-engineering pretty much the entire genre.

Whatever you do, DO NOT add mechanics that actively encourage ICS by giving away free resources/buildings to every city. See "The Cloudbase Academy" for Alien Crossfire as a way to completely wreck any non-ICS strategy. This wonder basically allows empty cities to grow and thrive using only resources from the player's civ-wide satellite constellation.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Getting rid of cities completely isn't really an option; I think. It's to crazy, too stark. But the option of perhaps having more than one queue per city is an intriguing possibility, as is empowering improvements (irrigation is pretty weaksauce. ;) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ My basic theory is that if players get more or less the same benefits in a single city than they do in multiple, ICS will just be a waste of settler building. \$\endgroup\$
    – drxzcl
    Nov 4, 2010 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ And yes, I agree, getting rid of cities is pretty radical. But you can also think of it in another way: it's a way to embrace the ICS instead of fighting it. Every square is its own lightweight city, with control schemes and structures designed specifically for this kind of gameplay, instead of the players choking in the city management overhead. \$\endgroup\$
    – drxzcl
    Nov 4, 2010 at 15:01

You can add value to empty space. Perhaps give cities a bonus depending on how close they are to an unclaimed "countryside" space, to represent folks' desire for nature or their needs for agriculture. Or maybe allow population to be assigned to some sort of non-city entity that offers a bonus too good to be turned down.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed. An intriguing idea. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 15:35

It's not unrealistic to have lots of little cities, but civilization games are supposed to be about the major cities. So it seems the best way to combat ICS is to strongly encourage larger cities. Ways to do that might include

  • As mentioned above, make a single city with 4 population give significantly more resources than 4 cities with 1 population (Civ generally has the opposite becuase of the free resources from the city tile)
  • Make buildings have minimum populations that are required to build. You can't man a factory in a rural town.
  • Make buildings have effects that scale with population. A colosseum isn't going to have much effect unless it is in a big city.
  • Make small cities a liability in conflicts. They aren't very defensible, and maybe there is a strong penalty for losing a city. Or maybe small cities can be annexed by nearby larger cities, with the population and buildings being added to the larger city.
  • Give empire-wide bonuses based on the number of "large" cities you have, or give bonuses to the player with the largest city.

Basically, try to imagine a country where no town had more than 5,000 people, and think what that country would be missing versus countries with major metropolises.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Well, it's a developmental issue, isn't it? A civilization starts as an ICS but but the sprawl is incorporated into cities as agriculture kicks off, and then as urbanism becomes a chore; you get suburbs, creating suburban sprawl. Annexing is definitely a part of the solution, I think. I just need to think a bit about the mechanics of it. ;) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 14:53

The root of the problem is basically a positive feedback loop. Each city gives resources, more resources allow for more cities, that give yet more resources, ad nauseum.

To solve it, the feedback loop must be broken^ that is, cities should stop giving resources after a while. (Or not give them in the first place.. but that kinda defeats the purpose).

Civ IV tried to break the loop by increasing maintenance exponentially with number of cities, and it worked to an extent. I haven't played Civ V yet, but from what I heard they deal with ICS in t better than in IV.

Instead of simply increasing maintenance, you can try to break the loop by making small cities progressively less effective (i.e. the more/larger cities you have, the less resources you obtain from a new small city).

Another way to approach this is to keep ICS as a viable strategy, but add another loop, where few large cities give about the same amount of resources as a lot of small ones. However, this is really hard to balance, because even a slight shift in balance will grow exponentially during the course of the game.


Real cities don't work a linear fashion, it's more gaussian. The number of civilians that a city can support should increase with advances in technology and medicine (and thus the amount of resources output). But cities also need some kind of minimal population, which also increases with technology. (you need XW to run the bio-chem plant, but only YW workers for the farm).

few workers = less resources if (#W < CivMin) +1W = +0.75R - 0.1R*W(upkeep of pop)

More workers = more resources. if (#W < CivLimit) +1W = +1R - 0.1R*W

Too many workers = drain on resources. if (#W > CivLimit) +1W = +1R - 0.5R*W

And if you really want to get fancy, migratory workers usually add less upkeep to a civ than a natural born citizen does (no flames, please!) and work for lower rates. Have implement natural migration where if the #W > CivLimit then workers migrate to locations where the ration of W:R is better.

Caveat: Never played Civ (shame, I know!) but those are just my thoughts.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The resource production is already proportional to the population, and that is exactly the problem: two size 1 cities produce as much as one size 2 city. He wants the size 2 city to be better instead. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Nov 4, 2010 at 14:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ oh, sorry, I left that out. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 15:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ A pretty big thing to leave out. ;) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 15:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ yes, sorry, I meant to imply some sort of gaussian population/resource curve. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2010 at 15:47

I have only played freeciv, but here are a few suggestions:

Remove the "bonus" production square every city gets. Without that bonus production square, four cities of size 1 will have as many production squares as a size 4 city. (Today the four small cities will have a total of 8 production squares vs 5 such for the size 4 city).

Make city growth linear so it costs as much food to get from size 10 to 11 as it takes to get from size 1 to 2. Also allow for a city that produces enough food to grow several sizes in one turn.

Allow a big city with a lot of production capacity to produce multiple items from it's production list during one turn.

I think the above would go a long way to even out ICS vs non-ICS but I then have a final suggestion which is a direct punishment of ICS: Tweak city walls, coastal battery and SAM batteries so they get a relatively weak defense bonus when the city is small and a relatively strong defense bonus when it is large enough. But that is really going for a deliberate punishment of ICS...

The above changes might come with an interesting price though, that growth of a city suddenly "runs amok" and it suddenly in one turn leaps from peaceful to severe civil disorder. Of course, careful planning of buildings might aleviate that to some extent.


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