Fans of the Civilization series know that no strategy is good for more than a month before players catch on, patches balance the game, and DLCs and expansions flip the script. In Civilization 5, Alexander of Greece started out as the unquestionably best leader and now he's... oh, well, that's a bad example, he's still great. But he's got company that surpasses even him at the top now!
With Civilization 6 in full swing, it's safe to say that the tier list for Civilization 5 will finally stop being altered and is now set in stone. So if you're ready to dive into the game, you have the unique opportunity to learn and master a world leader that will climb to the top and stay on the top.
If you find a leader that you like the best, by all means, stick with it. In multiplayer, people regularly gang up against top-tier civilizations, so playing with an "inferior" world leader can reliably increase your victory percentage. But as far as single-player gaming goes, these are the leaders who consistently win the most with the highest scores.
Updated on April 7th, 2021 by Hodey Johns: After generating lots of positive feedback, it became clear that the community wanted even more civilizations added to this article. The metagame has not fundamentally changed, but there were a few leaders that just barely missed the cut and are often considered in the top tiers. Therefore, three more nations have been added in spots eleven through thirteen. Additionally, the highlights of each civilization have been bolded for those skimming the piece and looking for a leader that suits their playstyle.
13 Songhai - Askia
Askia's Mud Pyramid Mosque gives all the standard benefits of a temple, but also tacks on two culture points and costs nothing to maintain. Because this can be built early, he can snowball a social policy advantage over competing civilizations.
Songhai rocketed into the top-tiers after the Gods and Kings expansion. His units already gained three times the gold after taking over a city or encampment and were able to defend themselves while embarked. As if this weren't enough, all of his units automatically gained Amphibious and War Canoes promotions.
12 Greece - Alexander
Gamers are so sick of seeing Alexander at the top of the leaderboards. He might not be in the top spot anymore, but for those who only have the base game, he's still the best around and can cruise to an easy military victory behind Hoplite and Companion Cavalry upgrades.
His Hellenistic League bonus gives Alexander double the bonus to gaining influence with City-States and cuts the degradation rate in half. War with Alexander means war with every "neutral" state on the map.
11 Zulu - Shaka
When engaging in combat, it's always advantageous to get the first strike in. Shaka's Impi replaces the Pikeman and they don't just get the first strike, they get an extra strike against melee units.
Instead of the Barracks, the Ikanda gives a 15% experience bonus to pre-gunpowder units. This synergizes with the Impi well and makes warring with Shaka in the midgame a losing endeavor. Shaka's unique ability, Iklwa, also reduces promotional experience needed by 25%. The Zulus can lose in combat, but they'll never lose because they're outranked.
10 Maya – Pacal
The Mayans have a lot going for them. Players that win early wars are far more likely to win the game, even more than those who win late wars, so the Atlatist upgrade over the Archer makes for a terrifying start with the game's best early semi-siege unit.
As if that weren't enough, the cities are buffed by Pyramids that replace the shrine. Even if opponents are still somehow alive after the first era, the freebie Great Person every 394 years keeps Pacal well-rounded and a threat on all fronts.
9 Huns – Attila
If the Huns have animals at their starting location, they probably bump up to a top five nation. If they have horses, then opponents might as well concede the game. It's already over.
Attila is a bit of a one-trick pony (pun intended) as all of his boosts go to building his two special units and razing cities with them. But this early to mid-game advantage can easily give you a lead that can't be surmounted.
8 Poland – Casimir III
This is another civilization that is built upon a horse's back. The Ducal Stable upgrades the standard stable and the Winged Hussar special unit is a big upgrade over the Lancer other nations are stuck with.
However, perhaps the biggest upgrade is the free social policy in every era. Statistics show that players with the most social policies generally win the game and this is a serious edge in that category.
7 Persia – Darius I
The Immortal over the Spearman is one of the largest disparities in the game, and Darius I can lean on making lots of them for an advantage that lasts for more than just the era they are created in.
What makes Persia so terrifying to play against is their golden ages and Satrap's Court which boost raw currency. Currency can erase any struggle with the snap of a finger, so you'll basically never fall behind in any aspect and can even sneak ahead for a late-game win.
6 Korea – Sejong
Players that love the positional battles will do well with Sejong. The Hwach'a and the Turtle Ship are great for hitting and running on land and sea and whittling enemy cities and armies down.
War is only the secondary objective for Sejong, though, as Great Person improvements and early science upgrades snowball out of control by the end of the game. Even an average Sejong can launch a victory rocket before the 1900s.
5 Inca – Pachacuti
Where other leaders need to steer clear, Pachacuti makes his home. The mountains and hills have no maintenance penalty to the Incans, and they have a unique tile upgrade for workers that turn this potential penalty into a straight-up advantage.
On top of the safety that comes with most players not wanting Pachacuti's cities, the Slinger replacement over the Archer gives them an early way to siege down any neutral city or competing civilization unfortunate enough to be close to an Incan mountain range.
4 Ethiopia – Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie is an underdog right until the moment that he wins the game. With a bonus to fighting civilizations that outnumber him, Selassie does best when only needing to manage a handful of cities and then razing those of anyone who has more than him.
The Stele makes him very inclined to focus mostly on development, but you'll be able to win a victory with warfare later on after getting the Mehal Safari. Selassie is a bit of a late bloomer because of this, but he has all the tools to survive early and win late.
3 England – Elizabeth
Elizabeth's strengths don't necessarily synergize with each other, but that's not a big deal. Your pathway to victory with her is denying what other nations are good at.
No other nation can conquer the seas while Elizabeth's Ships of the Line are patrolling. No other nation can seize her cities when Longbowmen guard the walls. As such, the English can do what they want and build where they wish after their navy shows up in the mid to late game.
2 Egypt – Ramesses II
Every civilization gets one or two special buildings, but they are, by and large, evened out when compared to each other. That means the only significant advantage is in wonders. And nobody builds them like Ramesses II.
The Burial Tomb is a good source of cash that multiplies your already astounding versatility. This gives you the distinct advantage of winning the game however you want by selectively choosing the wonders that contribute toward the path of your choice.
1 Babylon – Nebuchadnezzar II
Scientific victory always seems like the goal for Nebuchadnezzar II, but he usually crushes his opponents way before that. It's got a Bowman for turtling, but it's less about special units and more about him getting the next era's units faster than anyone else.
Nebuchadnezzar II's Great Scientist bonuses all but eliminate the chance for any other civilization to keep up or even receive a Great Scientist at all. You can launch a victory mission into space, true, but you might as well stop toying with your prey and just march machine-gunners into their towns by the 12th century until they concede.
If all else fails, give it away.