The objective of Civilization is to "Build an empire to stand the test of time." It begins in 4000 BC and the players attempt to expand and develop their empires through the ages from the ancient era until modern and near-future times.

To play the game, the player takes on the role of the ruler of a civilization, starting with only one settler unit, and attempts to build an empire in competition with between two and six other civilizations.

Along with the larger tasks of exploration, warfare and diplomacy, the player has to make decisions about where to build new cities, which improvements or units to build in each city, which advances in knowledge should be sought (and at what rate), and how to transform the land surrounding the cities for maximum benefit. From time to time the player's towns may be harassed by barbarians, units with no specific nationality and no named leader.