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For more details on this topic, see Civilization/Gameplay.

Civilization II is similar to the first Civilization]], with some changes to the various units, civilizations, world wonders, tile "specials" and technologies. The graphics were changed from a top-down view to an isometric representation. Rivers no longer occupy the whole of each tile along their length; instead, they are part of each topography square through which they flow, adding productive value, defensive bonuses and movement ability. The AI was improved as well, including the elimination of most random events by now making the computer player go through the same production requirements as the human player.

The game features entirely new concepts, such as firepower and hit points, and changes to some units' abilities and strengths. For instance, engineers and settlers can be automated to improve surrounding areas, but do not ignore enemy zones of control. Damaged units can now retreat to cities, where their hit points are restored. Some new units are added such as stealth aircraft.

The player has the ability to consult the 'High Council' for advice (as long as the player still has the CD in the drive). The council consists of film clips of actors portraying advisors in the areas of the military (a brawny man, often drunk, angry or both; he becomes a stereotypical American general when Modern Age is reached), economics (a smooth-talking merchant, later a snooty and suave businessman), diplomacy (in the Modern Age, a saucy femme fatale with a vaguely Eastern European accent), technological progress (a nerdy scientist), and the people's happiness (an Elvis Presley caricature, wearing sunglasses even in the Ancient period). They often argue with and insult one another, as each advisor's department demands a different set of priorities.

There are two paths to victory (and bonus points to the score) in this game: to be the last civilization remaining or to build a spaceship and reach Alpha Centauri before any of the other civilizations. The space race can be much more difficult because there are a limited number of turns in the game, which ends in the year 2020. If the spaceship does not reach Alpha Centauri by then, the game will simply end with the current score. The player can continue playing after all civilizations have been conquered, the spaceship has reached its destination, or the year 2020, but there will no longer be any scoring. The sooner a player conquers every other civilization, or the space ship arrives, the higher the player's score will be.

The scoring system measures the player's performance in the end of each game. Population is a major influence on scoring as each happy citizen contributes two points, each content citizen contributes one point, and each unhappy citizen contributes zero points. This means that higher population yields better scores. Additionally, each wonder of the world owned by the player will also add 20 points to their score. Each wonder of the world can only be built once per game. Each wonder adds different bonuses so the Player must choose carefully which one(s) they want to work on and try to build them before the computer opponents do. Each square with pollution deducts ten points.

The length of time there has been peace (no armed conflict or war) up to the end of the game also adds three points per turn, up to a maximum of 100 points, and if the player won using a spaceship, additional points are rewarded, based on the number of people who reached Alpha Centauri alive. The final score will also give a civilization percentage, based on the difficulty level the game was played at (chosen at the very beginning of the game). The higher this percentage is, the better. Finally, a title will be given to the player. Particularly good ones include "Lion-Hearted", "the Great" with the greatest obtainable title being "The Magnificent".