Basic Guide to Social Policies
and how they fit into various strategies
Social Policies are the flavour additive to your game. You can play the same map and same civ multiple times, but by taking different policies, and therefore actions, you can end up with a very different game each time.
Social Policies help drive your economy, science, happiness, City State diplomacy and military. How you use, and combine, them will drive you towards the Victory Condition (VC) of your choice. While only the Cultural VC requires extensive use of the policy branches, all VC types directly benefit from them.
Not all Social Policies are useful in every game, though every policy provides a form of positive benefit. Some are very map dependent, others require specific circumstances to occur before being useful, and then there are the ones that just say "win". Most importantly though, a large number of policies work best when combined with ones from other policy branches, or wonders, and when working directly towards a specific VC goal.
Generally the best policies in a branch are deeper, meaning that you will need to take two to three policies within a branch to get there. Most of the branch openers are relatively tame in comparison, though each has their uses in most games. For example, to get the most out of the Piety opener (+15% production for culture buildings) you would have to expand. The more you expand, the better the policy gets as you'll be using it on more and more culture buildings. Of course, the next social policy will be very expensive due to the expansion; but, each of your cities will have their borders expand a little faster due to getting the culture buildings up faster. Whereas Free Religion (Free Social Policy and culture buildings produce one more culture each) is a much more powerful policy.
Also by design is the fact that the later era policy branches are far more powerful than the earlier ones, in their respective areas. Autocracy does more for your war effort than Honour, while Order provides an end game large empire with more bonuses than Liberty does.
Such is the way of the Social Policy mechanics in Civ 5. We'll look at the basics in this article, but you should check out each individual Social Policy branch to find out more details. Various strategies will also mention Social Policy choices, so those articles will be where you find out how to get the most out of them.
- Key Concepts
- Acquiring Social Policies
- Standard Openings
- Social Policy choices for Victory Conditions
- Social Policy choices for Map Type
- Social Policy Synergies
- Policy - a single social policy choice that provides a benefit, such as Meritocracy, Military Caste or Landed Elite.
- Policy Branch - A group of Social Policies with similar flavour and are linked for acquisition purposes, such as Tradition, Liberty or Honour.
- Social Policy Synergy - When combining Social Policies, you will sometimes create a situation where the "sum is greater than the parts"; this is what we call social policy synergy.
- cpt - Culture per turn: the rate at which you are producing culture each turn.
- gpt - Gold per turn: the rate at which you are producing (or losing) gold each turn.
Acquiring Social Policies
Social Polices are the cultural aspect of a civilization and are gained by accumulating an amount of culture. Once chosen, you cannot take it back, so choose wisely. As well, Social Policy branches open up at specific technological eras, with only three available in the Ancient era.
- Tradition - Ancient Era - Helps with cultural border expansion, wonder building and boosting your capital
- Liberty - Ancient Era - Rapidly set up a new empire, be it small or large. Policies help all cities.
- Honour - Ancient Era - Enhance you units combat prowess and gain happiness through maintaining a defensive empire
- Piety - Classical Era - Enhance your empire with policies that boost culture, happiness and make it easier to get ever more policies.
- Patronage - Medieval Era - Maintain City State alliances easily and gain more from these alliances.
- Commerce - Medieval Era - Gold is good, so use these policies to ensure you have a solid economy.
- Rationalism - Renaissance Era - Still rubbing sticks together to make fire? Take these Science booster policies to rapidly join the modern era.
- Freedom - Renaissance Era - Get more out of your empire by gaining a stronger specialist economy.
- Autocracy - Industrial Era - Have an itch to burn the world? These war-centric policies will take care of that.
- Order - Industrial Era - Sometimes the only way to rule the world is to cover it with your empire. These policies add bonuses to all cities.
There are a number of culture buildings that give you in each of your cities, wonders which enhance your cultural output, as well as a few policies that either give direct or indirect (multipliers) culture, or reduce future policy costs. You can also gain culture by using Artist specialists or by working Landmarks created by Great Artists. Your Palace alone will generally only provide you the first one or two policies before you need to start adding culture buildings to your cities. You can also friend or ally a Cultural City State which will give you culture every turn.
The cost for acquiring the next Social Policy increases exponentially each time. This is why the first few policies are very important choices in most games. After the fourth policy, you will need to increase your to keep gaining new policies in a reasonable time frame. As well, every time you settle a new city, or annex a ‘new’ city, your policy cost will rise permanently. Puppet cities do not increase your policy costs, even though they will provide more culture towards acquiring new policies.
Given that this is a game, we have a few choices to make when it comes to what type of game you want to have. Even though you only have three possible choices to make in the early game, there are policy branches that "conflict" with each other. So early choices do in fact prevent you from making certain later game choices, unless you pay the penalty. If you choose to open a branch now, and then decide to open its conflicting branch later, you will have a turn of "anarchy" where your whole empire goes on "holiday" for a turn, so don't make it a habit.
- Order, Autocracy and Freedom are mutually exclusive. You only get one.
- Piety is opposed to Rationalism
- Tradition, Liberty, Honour, Patronage, and Commerce are free from conflicts.
So, you're wandering around meeting the city states, other civilizations and barbarians when a notification pops up telling you that you should pick a Social Policy. This first policy comes fairly early, dependent on game speed: Standard = 25/1 = 25 turns maximum. This will be a very important choice, as it will affect your later game choices. Keep in mind that building an early monument (+2 culture) can speed this up, as well as finding a free culture ruin (+20 culture on Standard).
A small note on culture ruins: You will get the culture right away, but won't be asked to select a policy until the next turn. So definitely watch for when this happens, as waiting one turn before selecting a policy can cost you some extra time. For example, getting the Tradition opener a turn later will cost you 3 cpt and might delay a border expansion by a turn; which could delay access to a new luxury resource; which then means you would try to sell it one turn after the AI spent all of it's gold on warriors; meaning you won't have money to add to that Cultural City State you friended a few turns ago, until a turn later. This ends with a natural conclusion: the AI allies them then DoWs you making you lose all of that original influence investment due to not taking a Social Policy when you were given the opportunity.
Your first few Social Policy choice sets the tone for the game, but it's never set in stone. The great thing about all of the social policy choices is that you can adapt on the fly to what is going on in your current game. Even the following "standard" openers have variants depending on the Civ used, the VC type expected and the map.
This is the most flexible starting Social Policy plan in the game. You start with the Tradition opener, which gives you 3 and expands your borders faster than normal. With this policy, you're going to have plenty of tiles to work in the early game, so you'll be able to get your capital up very fast with a few workers.
If you have an AI or two near you, you can expect to be DoW'd soon. So grab Oligarchy next (+100% damage from the city's ranged attack + free maintenance on garrisoned units) and then head off to the Honour tree to boost your fledgling army. You can always come back later to boost your capital when the fighting is over, but while in Honour, get Military Caste for the +1 happiness and +2 culture per garrisoned city. This will give you 'free' happiness and culture, while your army rests.
If you haven't been spotted yet, you can instead head into Aristocracy (boost to wonder building and extra happiness) and try building an early wonder. You should definitely head into Philosophy before taking Legalism though. Since you're likely to have built a monument already, you don't want to 'waste' Legalism by not having a temple available (at Philosophy) for the policy to give you. At which point you can then move on to Landed Elite and Monarchy to finish the tree and gain decent boosts for your capital.
If you don't have a lot of food around your capital and next city locations, this opener will ensure that you will get your cities up in population very quickly anyways, especially if you add an aqueduct to each of the cities. You will need to watch your happiness, however, so ensure to add a few coliseums and then the Circus Maximus.
This is a great transitional opener as your science output will increase as your population grows - as well as by adding libraries - and you can therefore shift into Classical (Piety) or Medieval (Patronage, Commerce) social policy branches fairly quickly due to your extra from the free culture buildings. Once Tradition is finished, you can keep expanding "wide" or just go "tall" with your few cities. Either way, you're set on early food costs and faster growth of your population.
The base level of Liberty provides you with 1 culture per city. So the more cities you have, the better this policy gets, though it won't help you towards new policies if you over expand. With Collective Rule, you gain a free worker, which saves you early game production time by being able to get tile improvements up and running faster. Finally, you head over to Citizenship to get a free Settler and the ability to produce them quickly from your capital.
This start lets you get a 2nd city and a free worker out very fast. From this point, you can keep expanding or keep small while you build some national wonders. Either way, you now have more tiles covered, and therefore more resources, than you had before.
As an alternative to Citizenship, if you don't have 400g ready for a Library in the 2nd city, you could go for Representation as your 3rd policy while you tech straight to Philosophy. You can usually use some, or all, of the golden age time to help build the National College before you grab Citizenship and start expanding.
The next few policies will be great for expanding to a large empire. Try to get Representation before expanding beyond your 2nd city. It drops the social policy cost due to expansion, so it's best to have this policy before you expand. The choice of Republic (+1hammer/city + 5% production on buildings) or Meritocracy (+1happy/trade route and -5% unhappiness from population) as the next policy comes down to what you need at the time. If you haven't teched The Wheel yet, then Republic is the obvious choice.
By finishing Liberty you end with a free Great Person of your choice. In general, you should receive this free Great Person around the time you hit Education (if you aimed to go there), so it's fairly common to take a free Great Engineer and grab Notre Dame or the Porcelain Tower with it.
This opener is not the fastest way to rush your opponent. In fact, it's likely the slowest of the three openers unless you're using very early units, and those tend to be the Unique Units of various Civs. The Honour policies are set up to make your units stronger, last longer, and make them cheaper to upgrade to later units. This can be far more useful than hitting a later era unit early, but not having much else.
The plan is to take Honour->(Discipline/Warrior Code)->Military Tradition. Definitely add a monument to speed things up. Tradition first is a clear alternate choice if you luck into a culture ruin early. This also leaves you open to take Legalism after you get to Philosophy (Songhai or Egypt approach) for some free temples, or Oligarchy to get no maintenance garrisons. If you do go Honour first, try to get a few archers out to kill some barbarians for their culture.
You would want to take Warrior Code before Discipline if you're lacking units or using archers/chariot archers as the Great General bonus is +20% and you also get a production bonus towards units. If you already have 4+ units (Warrior or Archer rush start with UUs) then Discipline might be a good plan as you'll want more flanking bonuses and will be able to generate the first Great General from fighting barbarians (and therefore get more culture) and defending against the early DoW.
This is not a policy branch opener that should be used in normal circumstances. If you're getting DOWed very early, often and others are joining in, then you want to make sure that your few units can withstand the assault, turn the tide and go get some retribution.
If you do go into Honour early and are fighting with Ancient/Classical era units, you will want to hit Professional Army before upgrading your units. The upgrade cost discount will save you more gold over the length of the game than any other policy, especially if you plan on naval battles. As well, the time you put into building walls (if seriously assaulted) will be rewarded with some happiness. Once you finish the Honour tree you will be rewarded with gold for each kill, which will also help you with the upgrades you'll need for your army.
Social Policy choice by Victory Condition
Just as you would work through the technology tree in a way that lets you hit key milestone buildings, eras or units, you will want to do the same for social policies. Some portions of individual policy trees work very well towards specific victory conditions, while others do not work quite as well. It is important to note though, that even with the following examples of policies to take for a type of victory, there are still many ways to get to the same goal. If you choose a very tall empire, you will want different policies than an empire that went wide. Some of these policy choices overlap, while others conflict.
There are a few ways to get to a high science output: Great Scientist production, mass puppets, mass City State alliances, and Research Agreements. Given that a Science victory is about the technology tree, you should find ways to link your social policy choices to how you want to "tear through the tech tree".
- Liberty is great for making a medium sized empire that can, when mixed with the right side of freedom and the left side of Rationalism, set you up to generate a long list of Great Scientists to bulb the final set of technologies for the Apollo program and spaceship parts. The free Great Person should generally be used as an Engineer to bulb the Porcelain Tower.
- Freedom (right side) helps with specialists and great people generation. This is important for generating the Great Scientists needed to blast you from the Industrial era to future era very quickly.
- Rationalism (left side) boosts your science output and ends with two free techs. Common use of Scientific Revolution is to use it on the two final Future Era technologies needed for the Spaceship parts.
- Tradition can be useful for smaller empires, and finishing it will feed you the two food used to feed your scientist specialists after you get the right side of Freedom.
- Order is ok if you decided upon a wider empire and everyone hates you (so research agreements are hard to get). Since you can't take it at the same time as Freedom, you'll have to choose whether you want more raw science and a stronger empire, or a smaller empire but faster Great Scientist production.
- Patronage -> Scholasticism is very useful to get a higher rate to enable research agreement 'median shifting' and clear out cheap technologies to ensure Great Scientists and Research Agreements hit the best ones.
In general, the exact mix of social policies for a Tech VC is entirely dependent on your current game. If you can't maintain both RAs and City State allies, then Scholasticism is a bad plan. A Liberty start, along with building the Hagia Sophia, and a beeline to Education is the strongest start in the game. You can use the 2 Engineers to rush the Notre Dame and Porcelain Tower when you hit Education. Follow that with using the free Great Scientist from the Porcelain Tower (along with the boosted RA strength) to bulb Astronomy to get you into the Renaissance. Once there, your 6th Social Policy should be the Rationalism Opener to maximize your RA output. (now at 100% of the median beaker tech) After that, GS production (right side of Freedom) and a push towards Scientific Theory (left side of Rationalism) will be your goals. You likely do not need any more social policies after this. (if playing peacefully)
Gold is very important in a Diplomacy game, as is vying for the City State alliances that you’ll need to get the win. Therefore, you'll want to build a strong economy as well as ensure that you can make the best use of that gold as possible. As well, you'll need a strong science base so that you can make it all the way up the tech tree to Globalization.
For a diplomatic victory, you'll need just as much science as a Tech VC, but you will also need a lot of gold to maintain your City State allies (or get them right before the end). So you'll need to go much 'wider' than a Tech VC empire would be. Therefore, it may be 'ok' to skip Freedom and take Order instead, giving your larger empire more in almost every category. You'll have less Great Scientists, and Order kicks in later, but your gpt can convert to both RAs and help maintain those allies. If you use the same opening sequence as per the science tech path listed about, you can use a spam of RAs to drive yourself into the Industrial era fairly quickly.
- Tradition can be useful to get an early empire up and running before jumping into Patronage and picking your tech lines. The Tradition Finisher is not just for small empires.
- Liberty is great for making a wider empire that can gobble up luxuries to sell to other civs so that you can get the gold to ally with City States. You’ll also start generating trade route income, which is always a good thing.
- Patronage is core to a Diplomacy victory as you want to ensure your gold goes a long way with the City States and have them help you along the way through the tech tree.
- Freedom (right side) helps with specialists and great people generation. This is important for generating the Great Scientists needed to blast you from Industrial to Globalization really fast as well as a Great Engineer to "rush" the UN.
- Commerce (right side) is great for boosting your capital’s gold flow and managing expenses.
- Order is great if you decided upon a wider empire as it drops the maintenance costs of building and gives you one of the few modifiers to unhappiness for number of cities.
- Rationalism (left side) boosts your science output and ends with two free techs. This can be the difference between waiting for two Great Scientists or Research Agreements, or working on the UN.
In a very strange way, you might consider 'saving' the last Liberty policy until the end to ensure you have a Great Engineer ready for the UN. Generally this would be Republic, if you so choose to do it. Otherwise, you'll need to switch from Great Scientists to a Great Engineer right near the end of the game, which means perfect timing is required. Though, you may luck out and gain a free GE from one of your City State allies along the way, which you should just leave in your best production city and forget about until the end.
In general, the best cultural game empire will be a tall one city to few city core with wonders in each city, and may have some puppet cities. This is due to the fact that every new city increases the social policy costs as well as the fact that puppet cities add culture, but do not increase the social policy costs.
So, which policies work for the description above? You don't need all of the following policy branches for a cultural game, but depending on the direction you chose, each of the following will help you.
- Tradition will give you a very nice tall empire that can make some wonders fast, as well as keep the happiness in your capital under control.
- Freedom is core to a cultural game as it helps with Great Artist production and doubles the culture from Landmarks once complete.
- Piety is an obvious choice as you get a free policy, more culture from cities with wonders, extra happiness from culture buildings and the ability to convert that happiness into culture! Finally, you get cheaper Social Policies when you finish Piety.
- Patronage is generally considered a good choice as you will definitely want Scholasticism and Cultural City State allies to help you along.
- Liberty can be good if you want faster workers and a free great person + golden age. Representation is essential for speeding up policy acquisition in a multiple city empire.
- Commerce is nice for boosting your capital's gold flow and managing expenses.
- Honour will allow you to keep a smaller, defensive army all game long without breaking the bank. You can gain a lot of gold in defensive wars and will gain a bit more happiness from defensive buildings.
The only two policy trees you should not use are Rationalism and Autocracy. Rationalism conflicts with Piety, which provides extra culture from happiness AND extra happiness. Autocracy conflicts with both Freedom and Order. Freedom is always needed for a "get it done before the AI wins" cultural game.
There are actually a wide variety of ways to win a domination victory when you apply social policy decisions. These would be best described in their own articles, or the strategy articles for various civilizations. The most obvious choices are Honour (early wars and cheaper upgrades) as well as Autocracy (late game wars and more happiness from courthouses to allow you to keep conquering).
Social Policy choice by Map Type
Since few maps are ever the same, you're going to have to adjust to "the lay of the land" in most of your games. The following are a few suggested policy choices, based on observed map situations.
Be it Continents, Archipelago or other map with a lot of water on it, there are a few social policies (and part branches) that should be strongly considered to help you out with these situations.
Naval units are very strong for most of the game, especially when they attain the logistics promotion and can effectively keep from getting hurt ever again. Of course, the down side to having a major fleet is that the upgrade cost to Destroyers (from Caravels or Frigates) is very high. To be able to upgrade the fleet, you'll have to give up on a large number of Research Agreements or City State alliances to make it happen. Given that high cost, Professional Army really helps with its reduction to upgrade costs. You'll still be missing a few Research Agreements, but it will be worth it for your super powered navy to keep on fighting.
One of the best settling plans on a water map is to keep your cities on the coasts. Part of the reason for this is Merchant Navy with it's +3 hammers addition to each coastal city. If you use a Liberty/National College opener and get into Medieval quickly, definitely consider going this route next since hammers in most water maps are very hard to find. You'll also get a nice boost to your navy's movement and sight, which can help with keeping the other civs away from your territory; or finding them sooner.
Given that hammers are harder to find, boosts to wonder production and faster border expansion can help you secure those sea based resources before an AI plops down a city on that one tile island just offshore.
Huge Map or Empire
The larger the map, the more likely you will end up with a very large population and land area over time. (either by peaceful or not so peaceful expansion) Organized Religion is great for reducing the unhappiness/city to a manageable level.
On very large maps, Order is almost required to keep the empire running at full steam. Extra happiness/city, boosts to production and science as well as extra units from militaristic city states. All worthwhile to keep those enemy AIs away from your empire.
One of the primary reasons to build a huge empire is to generate a vast quantity of gold. Of course the downside to expansion is that you'll get less Social Policies for doing it. So choosing your social policies wisely can be very important. This partial path boosts your gold output in your capital, reduces the roads and railroads costs of trade routes (as well as harbours/seaports) and finally gives you a discount on all gold purchases. This will help you generate the gold needed to do whatever you desire, especially if mixed with Machu Picchu for more gold/trade route and Big Ben for another discount on purchases.
Social Policy Synergies
As you can see already, a variety of Social Policies have similar bonuses, though dependent on differing situations. Sometimes, it's very possible to mix those situations together and come up with a very powerful combination of Social Policies, wonders and technologies. Listed below are just a few, but please watch the video on the right for a more detailed analysis of each of these situations.
Infinite City Sprawl (ICS)
While Ghandi can ICS like no other with just the Unique Ability and a few happiness buildings, the rest of the civs need a bit of help to get there. To do it early, you'll need to mix Meritocracy (1 happy/trade route) and Organized Religion (1 happy/<monument/temple/monastery>). You can also go with Military Caste/Professional Army, though you would need a unit/city and walls/castles everywhere. You can also wait and grab the base Order policy for 1 happiness/city. From that point on, all you have to worry about is the unhappiness from Population, which is easy to do with happiness buildings and the "avoid growth" option. (and/or using some specialists) Adding in the Forbidden Palace, Aristocracy or other wonders with +happiness is just a bonus. If done right, you can easily have an infinite number of 10-15 pop cities. Though, you'll want to stay small while collecting the social policies, since the costs go up as you expand.
Even though you'll have to wait to get the right policy mix and eventually give up on Social Policies altogether, this is a very strong mid-late game massive empire strategy. Once you've attained the right policy mix, happiness will not be your limiting factor as you create that massive empire. This is a great way to drive gold and science for your empire, especially if the AI isn't playing nice with you and Research Agreements are hard to come by.
Sometimes your gpt just isn't enough to handle buying everything you want. Other times, you're stuck in a low production zone and must buy a lot of your buildings and units to keep up. That's where being wise with your gold stack comes in handy. Mercantilism (Commerce branch) and Big Ben both drop your spending costs. When combined, you get a 40% discount on all purchases. If you add Militarism (Autocracy) the cost of units is dropped another 20% (multiplicative modifier - 33% of 60%). Now that's good business, especially in the late game where the rush costs for units (such as nukes at 908g vs. 1000 hammers) are much more attainable than the production times.
This combination is a rare usage synergy. If you happen to be trying to defend yourself from aggressors, Oligarchy (boost to city ranged attack) is generally a nice thought. As it also grants you free maintenance costs of units that are garrisoned in a city, it's a nice gold saving policy as well if you're running a mid-sized empire trying to be peaceful, yet carrying a stick. Since you're there anyways, why not grab +1 happiness and +2 culture per city by having military caste at the same time? All it costs you is... Social Policies and time to pump out a unit/city. You get extra happiness for growth or to put into the happiness bucket as well as being able to have a mid-sized military without the pain of paying for it when you aren't using it! The savings over time, given that maintenance costs rise as the game goes on, will help pay for their upgrades.
Just ensure that you actually have a decent gpt income as well as a healthy positive happiness, else the units might not be so useful once you actually need them.
Every game is different and has a natural ebb and flow to it. Hopefully we've provided some basic knowledge of how the Social Policies work in Civ 5, to help you guide that flow in your game. Social Policies are the primary factor in games that can make or break how you choose to win.
It may not have been stated explicitly above, but it is worth saying at least once: The best use of the Social Policy branches tends to come from selecting a few different policies, rather than all policies within one branch. Even in a culture game, you should only select the policies that will benefit you now within a branch, and then go back and finish the branch when you run out of better policies. The only policy trees that you should finish right away are Liberty (most games) and Piety/Freedom. (culture games)
A large number of strategies for maps, civilizations or victory conditions are tied to how, and when, you use the policy branches. Those articles are where you'll find more advanced uses of Social Policies; some of which might conflict with the basic reasoning above, but that's OK. There are so many potential ways to play Civ 5 that each and every policy will have a different utility depending on the game play style, map and situation.
Patch version of this article: 188.8.131.523
Basic Guide to Social Policies (vanilla)
Basic Guide to Social Policies