Civilization VI: Four Hours Of Wars And Wonders

Last month I spent four hours playing Civilization VI on a very hot day in central London. I came away wishing I could play for another four hundred hours, and also wishing that I had an ice cream. Mint and choc chip preferably.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what Civ VI is doing and how its many systems create a brilliant competitive race through history while also producing some weird tensions around the idea of what a civilization actually is in the context of the game. Are cultures defined by the choices they make, by their surroundings, their neighbours, by determination or by chance? Whatever the answer might be, one thing is sure: Cleopatra hates me.

I’d already spent a brief measure of time playing with the latest in the venerable Civilization franchise when I arrived for the hands-on session. This time, rather than being planted on a purpose-built map with no choice in the setup of the game, I was able to choose from several civs and the world was randomly generated, in either pangaea or continental form. I chose France, hoping that their diplomatic specialisation would allow me to explore that aspect of the game, and to ensure I’d have neighbours aplenty in the early stages, I chose a pangaea. No pesky seafaring required to make friends and enemies that way. We’d be able to gossip and poke one another with sticks right over our garden fences.

Gossip and sticks are important tools in Civilization VI. The sticks are nothing new and combat as a whole is one of the least changed areas of the game, having been completely overhauled for Civ V and now simply refined. Those refinements come in the form of a new support class of unit. As with civilian units, such as settlers or workers, artillery-type weaponry can be escorted by a tougher combat unit rather than left to wander, alone and vulnerable.

There are other methods to evade the one unit per hex restriction as well, including the creation of three-unit stacks. The units must be of the same type, encouraging use alongside other units as is correct for the tactical combat system. They represent a dense block of troops or vehicles rather than a multi-faceted body, and are called ‘corps’. Rather than simply rolling off the factory line, they have tricky (and possibly non-renewable) build requirements, emphasising their specialist nature.

But the sticks and stones of war are informed, more than ever, by gossip, rumour and diplomatic awareness. Diplomacy is often one of the weaker points in any 4x game, partly due to the gap between what we expect from a human opponent and what we get from the AI, and partly because treaties and agreements tend to be used to make things happen rather than to explain why things are or might be happening. Civ VI takes significant steps toward making diplomacy work as background noise before it becomes centre-stage action.

Much of that, in the early game at least, is thanks to the gossip system, and that’s where the French excel. Led by Catherine de’ Medici, they’re able to take advantage of her courtiers in the form of The Flying Squadron. As soon as you make contact with another civ they go to work, quietly gathering information and boosting your level of knowledge about goings-on in the world. Every civ can learn about its opponents by opening trade routes or embassies, but France gains one extra level of access immediately thanks to the Squadron and their entertainments. When you’re having a ball, it’s easy to forget that the walls have ears.

In practical terms, during my playthrough, this meant that I tended to know when my neighbours were considering hostilities. I found myself next to a belligerent Egypt, but I wasn’t the focus of Cleo’s ire. Not this time. In this version of crisis on infinite Earths, she had a problem with my closer neighbours, the Americans.

The continent wasn’t big enough for the both of them.

Thanks to the gossip system (and gossip is always fact, not false rumour), I knew war was coming before the first shots were fired (or, in this case, before the first swords were unsheathed; the year was 500AD). Before meeting with another civ’s leader for discussions, you can check recent gossip about the state of their nation. Egypt, the screen told me, was strongly considering military action against America. Thanks to the tendrils of the squadron, even my primitive intelligence system had picked up on some of the advances made by both nations as well as their attitudes toward one another.

Egypt was the stronger, by some distance. And so I picked my side…

Now, all of this information could be gathered in other ways: the placement of cities and border tensions are good indicators of future fisticuffs, and those league tables that every Civ game flashes up from time to time give a good indicator as to where everyone stands in relation to their opponents. What Civ VI has done is create new channels through which information can flow, and that not only opens up opportunities to develop those channels, shaping your nation in new ways, it also makes the world and the numbers that make it up seem more dynamic.

In many ways, Civ hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. It’s still a game in which history is a more like a race involving several competitors rather than a strategic simulation, and it’s still a numbers game. Everything from terrain to tech has specific numbers attached, and whether they define the bonus a city can gain from a tile or the strength of a unit, they’re the fabric of the game.

What may be more important than the sweeping changes to cities and a civ’s relationship with its geographical surroundings is the way in which Ed Beach and his team at Firaxis are using all of those numbers to build a greater sense of character. Civilizations feel like distinct and somewhat predictable entities now. Sure, you won’t understand them completely when you first meet them but when I saw the stormclouds of war gathering, I had a pretty good idea what the Egyptians and the Americans were fighting about, and it wasn’t just territory.

More than ever, there’s a sense of each civilization being personality-driven and not just in the sense that Gandhi will always be a prick. The historical traits, which are always attached to a specific leader, are more complex than ‘aggressive’ or ‘expansionist’. They have wrinkles in their working, recognising various kinds of superiority and inferiority, and understanding geographical relationships better than ever before. One leader might feel a paternal protective instinct to weaker civs on his own continent, while another might want to cleanse that same home territory of anyone who causes trouble, or seems likely to.

Randomised hidden traits supplement the historical ones. These complicate things and, again, you can receive confirmation of each through diplomacy/espionage, or figure out what they might be through guesswork and observation. Four hours with Civ VI was plenty of time to confirm that the AI is superbly active, making plans and behaving in a believable and competitive fashion. The Egyptians picked off smaller cities and then surrounded Washington, laying siege. They would have wiped out the Americans entirely if the session hadn’t come to an end.

While all of that was happening, I was racing down the tech tree. Tech trees, sorry. Civic and cultural advances now live on one tree while the more science-y stuff has its own home. As well as being an expansion of the civics in Civ V, which allow you to customise governments in a much more in-depth fashion this time around, this splitting of research is a further tool to allow varied paths through history. Now, it’s possible to create a convincing culturally advanced civ that hasn’t bothered to figure out how to make muskets. Opera houses without explosives.

Just as cities are more specialised this time around, defined to an extent by their surroundings as well as your needs and wishes, civilizations diverge from the single starting point. Everything still runs on a linear path, from one era to the next, and to one of several victory conditions, but every player in the game (whether AI or otherwise) much more obviously plots their own route down that path. Religion has been fleshed out enough to be a significant goal in and of itself, rather than a sideshow, and the strict division of culture and science makes concentrating on either feel like a much more important decision.

When Firaxis announced that Civ VI would contain all of the elements present in the fully expanded Civ V, I expected some of them to be stripped back. That doesn’t appear to be the case. If anything, every feature has been not only fleshed out but in some cases completely rethought so that it seems entirely new. City states are much more like mini-civs now rather than time-consuming attention-grabbing distractions. Governments and civics form a core system, almost like a tiny collectible card game, that allow you to make nation-wide changes mid-game, some of which provide the same kind of bonuses and abilities previously associated with individual civs.

It’s impossible to say how Civ VI will hold up over the years I’m likely to be playing it, or even how the modern eras will function. I haven’t even begun to explore espionage and some of the seemingly smaller rule changes, such as the finite pool of shared great people (they exist in the world and you race to attract them to your civ before someone else does the same), will have an enormous impact on long-term strategies. Those who feared a streamlined game – perhaps believing Civ V had begun a trend in that direction in its vanilla release or perhaps misreading the intent of the bright and exaggerated graphics – need not worry. This is a game that is exploring and expanding on almost every feature that the series has covered in the past.

If anything, it’ll be too dense rather than too light, and here’s where I express a few concerns. There’s a slight tension, even in the early stages of a playthrough, between the game’s desire to present players with all kinds of tools with which to fashion the character and strengths of their civilization, and the pre-existing templates for those civilizations. The Egyptians who have caused such trouble in both of my campaigns to date will always prey on those with a military technology, but they’ll also be defined by the geography of their homeland and whatever secondary trait is randomly selected for them.

Civilization VI appears to be the entry in the series that most wants to revel in the character of its leaders and their civilizations, but also the entry that most delights in forcing reactive playstyles. What you begin as, and what you want to become, might change in the movement from one era to the next, and from the plains to the deserts.

In one iteration of Civ VI, I reckon, there may have been a game where no participant in a playthrough came with preconceptions. You’re defined by what you do across time rather than by your name or the qualities of your leader. Those ahistorical traits, such as The Flying Squadron, are often borrowed from a specific time and place that may never exist in the particular world that comes to pass in any given campaign. With the vast toolset that now exists to create a civilization through the process of playing the game – you can populate it with works of art, wonders, customised governments, diverse cities, tourist destinations, cultural ideas – it seems almost regressive to have the choice of a civilization be the first important step in any given playthrough.

That’s not to say I’m not fascinated by the apparent contradictions, as well as the weird strategies and builds that people will discover given these bases to build from. A little tension in the design of a game can be a very good thing. It’s certainly exciting to see a game in such a venerable series tackling structural issues with such confidence and I’m willing to admit that my idea of dynamic civs without the baggage of any pre-existing historical character or imperative might be one change too many at this point.

Given how much Civ VI is changing, fundamental strategies are going to have to be rethought, and despite their cartoonish on-screen representatives, the civilisations themselves are more dynamic than ever. Here’s to four hundred more hours of wars and wonders.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is due for release on October 21st, 2016.

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  1. Aztek says:

    I agree.

    Pre-selecting historical characters forces you down a certain road to victory.

    Instead, personal characters should be developed based on random events or resources you stumble across in a generated map. For example, you may stumble across iron very early on and decide to develop an army, or your civilisation may witness random miracles and develop a highly religious following. Your character could gain traits as they go along.

    Been a while since I’ve played Civ to be honest but these were my thoughts back in Civ IV.

    • Xocrates says:

      Honestly, Civ V has become essentially irrelevant to me since playing BE: Rising Tide since it made clear how damn linear and predictable progression is in V.

      A game in BE:RT changes drastically based on who you’re playing, what resources you have access to, who else is in the game, and what artifacts you find. If Civ VI manages to replicate, and even improve that, it is certainly a hugely exciting development.

    • Troubletcat says:

      I’m of two minds about that. I personally like to play organically to a large extent and something just rubs me the wrong way about choosing what my nation will be before it’s even begun to exist.

      On the other hand, there’s a lot of strategic interest built by the fact that you can often be put in situations where your civ bonuses are not actually DIRECTLY helpful on your path to victory because of the game state after 300 turns. In those cases you need to do some interesting systemic thinking about e.g. “how can I use the culture-oriented bonus of my civ to help me win a diplomatic victory?” Because of the way systems interlink in Civ there’s usually a way to do this, and it can be very interesting from a gameplay perspective.

      I feel like the franchise lives in an uncomfortable place on the contiuum of strategy games. It lies firmly in the middle of strategy games that are about winning, about their gameplay (e.g. StarCraft) and strategy games that are more about historical simulation/experimentation, possibly not even having a defined win condition at all (e.g. CKII). I find myself wishing it leaned more towards attempting to being an exploration of history and politics about as often as I find myself wishing some small detail or other of the gameplay worked a little better, realism be damned.

      Ultimately I think the fact that it sits inbetween those two camps is one of the things that keeps it so interesting for me. Suffice to say I’m very excited for Civ VI.

      • 2late2die says:

        something just rubs me the wrong way about choosing what my nation will be before it’s even begun to exist.

        See, I just don’t get that. Because yes, you choose your leader and traits/bonuses and units/buildings, but those things don’t form the entirety of what your nation will be. To me at least, between the terrain I end up on, the civs that surround me and the choices I make, every game, even using the same civ ends up feeling so so different. Yes, if you’re playing as the Americans you might try and beeline for the Minutemen, but you know what, it’s not always going to work for you. If you have to deal with an early war with a neighbouring civ, or maybe you get tempted by a combination of ideal conditions that make it easy to expand and grow instead of thinking of war, or any other of a dozen of possible scenarios, by the time you get to them they may not even be relevant or needed.

        I recognize that there are many “samey” strategies in Civ – 9 out of 10 times you’ll start with Pottery, if you’re playing as Greece you’ll lean heavily of City States, if with France on culture, etc. But every strategy game has some “known good moves”, that doesn’t take away from the variety of the other hundreds and thousands of choices you make throughout the entire game, that make each game unique.
        Of course, “unique” can be subjective, but this is based on Civ 4/5, and it looks like if anything, in Civ 6 the devs are making an effort to introduce more choices and variety, so I’m seriously looking forward to putting another 500 hours into this series. :)

    • alh_p says:

      I agree that picking a civil with a unique unit which requires a resource you don’t end up having can be frustrating as well a bit “ludicaly dissonant” (ha). It can push you to adapt or regenerate a map. But having a completely blank slate civ sounds a bit too far. Better perhaps to have dynamic choices between civ bonuses, I.e. either you can have access to a special unit or some thing else, as an alternative. It would be good if you made that choice when, perhaps discovering/revealing key resources.

      • Troubletcat says:

        That sounds like a really good way of handling it to me.

      • Xocrates says:

        BE does something like this with the quest system, but a consequence is that without the need to fight or trade for specific resources it’s very easy to be fully passive and essentially ignore the other civs.

        So you want for there to be resources that a player needs, but may not have, but don’t want to screw them if they don’t. Honestly, the simplest solution is for the civ bonuses to not depend on specific resources at all.

    • 2late2die says:

      But that is the appeal of Civ games for some of us – the idea that we’re playing a specific historical civ. Yes, the history of the game ends up being different from real history, but to me, and I’m sure many others, that anchor of playing with a “real”, historically based leader and historically based peoples is what gives it more character and spice because it fuels the fantasy of “alternate history”. By definition, you can’t have alternate history if you don’t start with some basis in real history.

      As a crude example, if I’m playing as Iroquois and end up crushing the Americans, and the Spanish and the English – well then hot dang it, the new world just kicked all y’all colonial asses!
      But if I’m playing the same game with some civ I invented, even if I end up forming some fun story in my head for the events, it’s not going to be “alternate history”, it’s just going to be fantasy – it has its appeal, yes, but it’s a different kind of appeal.

      Games like endless legend, beyond earth, galciv, alpha centauri – they’re all great, and I’ve had tons of fun with them, but none of them had the same lasting appeal to me as the Civ games, and large part of that is the historical setting with all these leaders and cultures taken from the real world.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Lakshmi says:

    I’m really excited because of the fact they’re blowing away all of my previous strategies. I’m way too invested in a perfect line to this or that, how to manage a map – so it sound fantastic that those are all gone.

  3. fearandloathing says:

    Ditto. Also a semi-randomized tech tree (like inventions in victoria 2) would work wonders on that, frankly I like it more when strategy games present you with dynamic options rather than current state of civ5 in which there are few lines of progression that you have to follow.

    • fearandloathing says:

      oh, I know and fully support their current efforts to make teching more dynamic by tying it on-map opportunities&resources etc. just need more of that

  4. Murray says:

    “Mint and choc chip preferably.”

    You’re a monster.

  5. Wulfram says:

    Catherine de Medici seems kinda random as the leader of France. I mean, she’s an Italian

    (And Hatshepsut would be better than Cleopatra, though I at least get the logic of going for the famous one.)

    • batraz says:

      So was Buonaparte, caro mio. We french somehow seem to do better with foreign leaders.
      Besides, nations didn’t count in the ancient world, I’m told.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I agree. It is suggestive of a decision to offer as many female leaders as they plausibly can rather than picking from the strongest possible contenders to being the best leader to represent the country. In a way this is a flaw with the decision to go for fully animated leader talking heads. If they were static you could offer a whole variety of leaders to pick from per country without masses of extra effort. Then countries with many notable historic figures to pick from wouldn’t have to reduce the choice to just one or two.

  6. alh_p says:

    She was Queen of France, yes – by marriage, but a famous one.

    • ThornEel says:

      Indeed, and she had so much influence over her son the king Henry III that some argue she was the actual ruler of France at the time.

      What I fear, though, is that they will keep on turning those historical figures into ridiculous cartoon caricatures.

      That and the “set the atmosphere on fire with cobalt-salted rocket engines” victory are actually two of the biggest problems I have with Civ, lately.

  7. Calculon says:

    Its interesting that it sounds like they are actually trying to develop an AI of sorts to interact with; its always been sorely lacking in most strategy games. Im hoping this will spur development in other strategy games to include an actual decent AI, and enhanced diplomacy.

    While I enjoyed the article, and it does sound intriguing, I dont think Ill be picking it up. Im much more interested in something more similar to an updated version of Paradox’s Victoria 2 – with robust economic simulators, deeper strategy and more alignment to historical simulation. To me Civ is more for the lulz as opposed to a serious strategy game at this point.

  8. weregamer says:

    Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I think getting rid of Civ-specific uniqueness would be a very bad idea. As much as I wanted to like Civ:BE, the complete flavorlessness (by comparison with the historical civs in Civ, or the well-realized, story-rich factions in SMAC) eventually made it feel way too boring.

    It’s true that by the final version of the game, Civ 5 has the problem that the unique abilities of each civ don’t much change the choices I end up making each game, and every play does end up feeling too much like the last. But too much emphasis on random seeds would be as boring emotionally as too little variation is boring intellectually.

    I think the goal Firaxis has stated for Civ 6, emphasizing things that will make each play feel different but not discarding uniqueness in each Civ, is a great idea and I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

    • Frank says:

      Maybe not the minority. That’s how I see it, too; and I’ve just skipped commenting because I’m happy with what I’m hearing about the game.

      I’m looking forward to (i) replaying the game with a substantially different scenario each time and (ii) playing against AIs that behave predictably and differently from each other, so they can factor into my strategy in interesting ways.

    • Voqar says:

      Nah, I agree too and find some of the commentary here to be off and odd. The leaders and civs being as they are is part of the draw and longevity of civ and one of the reasons civ crushes more generic games. You need those elements of history there and maybe even the potential RP element of it to boost it from just being about numbers.

      Plus, you don’t always have to fully leverage the strengths of your civ but it can be enjoyable when it all comes together.

      I also hardly consider Civ to be a “lite” strategy game. Firaxis does a great job of making the game accessible and presenting info via UI but there’s plenty of depth involved and of equal importance, there’s enough randomness and variety to provide endless replay.

      There may not be a randomized tech tree but I think with the inspiration thing and the two trees there’s a little more room for variety. You may not always take the same path depending on whether you crank more science vs culture or whether you can do things to get boosts to techs you want first. Looks a bit less static than V to me for this.

      I’m liking everything I’ve seen about Civ VI so far. I thought V was by far the best in series but VI looks like it’ll easily out do it by taking and refining elements of V, mixing in some previous good ideas, and mixing in some new ideas (and maybe even taking some inspiration from the coummunity balance patch and/or civ V mod scene).

      I’m also liking that unlike most strategy games including civ itself, it’s not starting out as a stripped down game missing core features and instead, this time around, we get religion, espionage, and stuff like that right away. I’m sure there will be a DLC parade and maybe some xpacs – but it’s refreshing to seemingly get the whole game up front, or at least the important core elements up front (probably end up having DLCs for map scripts and civs right away, but that’s less disruptive than missing something like religion or espionage at the start, and DLC is inevitable).

      After decades of gaming and hyped games (and having a ridiculous amount of games and backlog) I very rarely hotly anticipate a new game anymore. Civ is the definite exception. Having a new version of Civ incoming is hype to the max.

  9. noxohimoy says:

    I stopped playing Civilization because I ever liked large maps, but the game didn’t took advantage of multiprocessors, and took too many minutes calculating between turns. That made the game unplayable, and I would like to know if it is fixed.

    Civilization was an addictive game, because after ending each game, I ever tough “I can do it better”, “I can make a larger city”, “I can get the entire tech tree”, “I can tweak my strategy this way”.

    So, I wanted to play again, and again.

    That’s what is missing on most games. I didn’t wanted to replay Doom 2016. After finishing it one time, I felt that I had seen all that the game had to offer.

  10. mitthrawnuruodo says:

    This series has become quite stale and un-evolved. Very little incentive to invest time and money on this “new” game over its predecessors. They need to borrow some fresh ideas and character from Paradox, Koei (Nobunaga / ROTK) and AGEOD.

    • lglethal says:

      Umm sorry but did you read the article? It sounds like they have completely evolved the game this time around…

      I for one will be picking it up when it emerges.