I absolutely DESPISE the penalty city system in civ 5. For me it makes zero sense it many occasions.
The best example being, when you conquer or are given a city. REJOICE WE WON THE WAR, WE CONQUERED THAT CITY, BOOM! The whole empire becomes unhappy and or even revolts. It's a silly restriction for no apparent reason.
I'm not opposed to having some sort of restriction for having many cities, but not the civ 5 way. In what possible way does it make sense that the whole empire becomes unhappy because of 1 conquered city? It could affect some part of the empire maybe, but everything? It just a ridiculous restriction.
Civ V went overboard with the whole 'tall vs wide' experiment, that's what's causing its problems. I certainly agree V doesn't do things the optimal way, either - seeing stuff like major sections of the world remaining uncolonized wildlands in the 20th century because nobody can afford to claim that land suggests something is wrong with its model. With that said, V is hardly any worse than celebrated games like Civ IV. I think what pisses off you (and many other players) is how they called it happiness... It has nothing to do with happiness, it's just an abstraction. Would it have made more sense to you if they had called it stability and conquering cities caused your stability to drop? I think so. In Civ IV, all your cities became more expensive to run (increased number-of-cities maintenance) following conquests. That made also "made no sense", but it served the exact same purpose as happiness in V - a balance mechanic to stop you from conquering the entire world while still having stone age level technology. As discussed many times over now, LH does the same, which is fine - except LH has put all 'happiness-buildings' at the very end of the tech tree.
IMHO the biggest flaw of that 3% per city mechanic is that it's a static value across all map sizes. so it's pretty much negligible on small maps and at the same time crippling on very large maps. i never understood why the percentage doesn't scale with map size. even civ 5 (which is known for it's rather strict anti-ICS mechanics) scales the most important per-city penalties based on map size so you can have a lot more cities on large/huge maps.
This is very true. The fact it doesn't scale in LH means conquest is even less feasible on the larger maps - the larger the map, the worse the unrest-per-city situation can naturally get. Combined with how heavy the unrest-per-city penalty builds up to, this means typical gameplay has each empire expanding to that ~15 city 'island', then settling in for the Spell of Making or Master Quest victory since that's about where you'll be in the tech tree at this point. It's the exact same situation as on even Medium maps, just the relative percentage of the map you'll cover before this happens is obviously that much smaller.
also, during the beta it was suggested several times that the unrest modifier of fortresses could be moved from the level 4/5 upgrade picks to standard buildings unlocked by research and built with production (for example, 3% global unrest reduction for city walls, another 6% for a castle or whatever) so you could actively build "unrest management" fortresses (as opposed to the rather passive option of slowly growing them to level 4/5 which we have now). i guess that system might have worked better, but at this point i think it's safe to assume that it will not be implemented
It just doesn't make much sense that because one city builds a wall or whatever military structure, global unrest decreases. It makes some sense that unrest reduction is tied to the military, but I don't think further global unrest buildings are the way to go - except perhaps as a new military type World Achievement building. That's why I'm suggesting a new building - call it City Hall or whatever - as a new tier 3 follow-up to the Town Hall and Bell Tower we already have. This gives you the new unrest-reducing building needed and helps fill the lengthy gap between the Town Hall and the arrival of Prisons and Onyx Thrones, but it is of course costly so that the production a smaller empire is sinking into other useful structures you'll have to spend on this. Because it works locally and not globally just like the Bell Tower, Cleric and so on the cost of using it scales with the size of the empire so the incitement not to just spam cities everywhere but use smart placement is retained.
not saying the unrest system in the game doesn't work. for most games, it's good enough - it slows down expansive civs and gives you some incentive to grow your cities vertically instead of mindlessly building new cities in every available spot. unfortunately this also means you'll never be able to fill a huge map with cities unless you keep playing long after the point where you could have won the game.
It doesn't work. It's not just an incentive not to expand; it makes expansion pointless if not detrimental, then asks the player to sit around waiting 100+ turns for a military city built as a farm to mature.