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Golden Ages are periods of great flourishing for an empire, periods during which everything seems to be working just perfectly. They are represented by periods during which your civilization receives bonus Production, Gold, and Culture for a limited number of turns.
The normal process involves generating more Happiness over a period of many turns. The excess Happiness (i.e. every count of 1 above the 0 point) will be added directly into a Golden Age counter every turn. Note that if the empire is Unhappy, the counter will diminish per turn by that amount until Happiness is increased.
Once the required amount of Happiness has been accumulated, a Golden Age will dawn. During this time, all land which produces at least 1 Gold when worked will produce 1 more, and Production and Culture generation are increased by 20% in all cities. In addition, there will be no periods of Anarchy if you decide to adopt a social policy which is mutually exclusive with an existing policy.
During a Golden Age, excess happiness will not count toward the next Golden Age; the counter will begin again at zero once the Golden Age has ended. Every subsequent Golden Age will require more and more happiness to be accumulated than the Golden Ages which preceded it. Also, the number of cities in your empire increases the quota on the counter – with more cities slightly more Happiness will be required.
Golden Ages normally last for 10 turns, but there are also gameplay effects that will increase the duration of Golden Ages. For example the Chichen Itza, or the unique ability of the Persian civilization. All of these percentage bonuses stack and are applied all at once to the base duration of 10 turns; Golden Ages can potentially last for 20 turns or more with the appropriate bonuses.
Certain Wonders and Social Policies can also begin a Golden Age. During this period, extra happiness again won't contribute to your normal counter, but in this case, after the end of the Golden Age, the counter resumes from the point where it was interrupted, not 0. In other words, there is always one and only one Golden Age counter, which is related to the "normal" Golden Age, and is not affected by "bonus" Golden Ages. Note, however, that the "bonus" Ages still increase the amount required for the next "normal" Age. If a "bonus" Golden Age is triggered when the empire is already celebrating a Golden Age, the current Golden Age will be extended instead of starting a new one.
In vanilla Civilization V, all Great People could initiate a Golden Age for a shorter time than the normal one. The Great Person was consumed with the harsh downsides that every successive time, not only would increased GPP cost slow the next one, but repeating the Great Person action would come with diminishing Golden Age length down to a minimum of three turns. In Gods & Kings, this ability becomes the sole purview of the Great Artist. Its Golden Age lasts for 8 turns and doesn't diminish in length for successive uses, no matter how many Golden Ages you start with Great Artists. As in the base game, the Great Artist is consumed in the process.
Golden Ages are a useful boost in your empire's presence on the map - use them to gather more Gold in your treasury by assigning Citizens to work all gold-producing tiles, and to complete lengthy or important projects faster. Because of they way Golden Ages interact with sources of Unhappiness (namely few and small cities will lead to excessively high happiness and more Golden Ages), and their lack of direct effect on Science, they should not be relied upon. A non-Wonder Golden Age is essentially time to catch up when expansion has not been possible, and propel the civilization towards either a powerful economic wonder, or the ability to buy key military units and prepare to expand.