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The RPS Verdict: Civilization 6

Declaring war against Diplomacy

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Though Adam was the first to settle in the brave new world of Civilization 6 [official site], Alec and Pip have since spent the weekend establishing their own outposts in Sidland. The three of them now form an uneasy alliance to discuss the strengths and failings of the game.

Grievances are aired at length about its new Diplomacy system, jumbled UI and opaque nature, while its vibrant look and elaborate nature are praised. And has learning to play Civ become like learning to play Dota? Let us parley.
Alec: How can it have been six years since Civ V. How can that be. How.

Adam: Click end turn just one time and years fly by, that’s just the way of it. One more turn on the road to the grave. Civ V does feel more recent than that though, mainly because the expansions felt like the real game. In my head, I tend to date it to the launch of Gods and Kings. That’s still a terrifying four years though.

But now six is here and I think it’s absolutely grand. You can read all about that in my big review, as I’m sure BOTH OF YOU ALREADY HAVE. But what say you? Are you having a good time?

Alec: A much better time than I did with Civ V pre-expansions, yeah, but more cracks are showing up as I play. Now that the early rush of charm has faded there’s stuff that’s frustrating me, but absolutely not to the point that I won’t play the thing until 2am for the next few weeks.

Pip: I’m having a more middling experience, I think, and I’m trying to work out how much of that is because I’m not steeped in 4X genre things as a matter of course, and how much is actively bad design, or failure to convey the information in an accessible way.

Adam: The two things that I’m unhappy about are tightly related – the AI and diplomacy as a whole. I don’t think the AI is terrible by any means, but I also don’t think it’s particularly good. The diplomacy on the other hand feels like a bunch of really good ideas that haven’t been fully executed – I described it earlier as being the most Civ 5 part of Civ 6.

I love the inclusion of casus belli and the driving force behind the agendas, but the former sometimes feel too arbitrary and the latter often require constant appeasement. They’re such dominant personality traits and behaviours that they don’t leave room for subtleties.

Alec: I know Civ IV and V are the obvious comparisons – the former being the other overtly cheery one and V being the one this shares the most systems with – but it’s III I’m thinking of most. That was the sort of the feature creepy one, before the soft rethink of IV, and I think that’s what’s happening here, which contributes to why e.g. Pip isn’t finding it entirely welcoming.

There are so many layers pasted on top of old layers and even I, as an old hand, haven’t found stuff like Amenities or Religion to be particularly easily-grasped or managed. Combine this with XCOM 2, which arguably was also far too opaque about its many interlinking abilities and the strategy map, and Firaxis seem to be falling into the Creative Assembly trap of becoming so heavy with features that they neglect to explain their essentials all that well.

And, in this instance, we’ve got some fairly messy Diplomacy that really should have been made fully functional instead of shoving in some brand new system. I like what they’ve tried to to do but it does feel like a half-finished experiment. Or maybe it’s just inherently imbalanced because, while the player can be reactive to an enemy Civ’s traits, the AI can’t do that to the player, whose motivation is essentially ever-changing.

Civilization 6 Diplomacy

Adam: We talked about this a little earlier, the lack of an agenda for the player, and while I don’t want to get into backseat game-designing, I think it’s a very valid point. I always prefer AI that feels as if it’s playing by the same rules as me, even if it is cutting corners, and the agenda system marks the player out as an alien. You’re not playing the same game because you don’t have a similar standard to operate and be judged by.

As far as how busy the game is, I’m all for it. Give me all the systems, as long as they work and influence one another. I think these do, on the whole, but Pip is dead on in that it can all be too opaque. I mentioned the pantheon screen in my review as an example of the scarcity of information – it tells me too much and too little all at the same time. In a perfect world, every strategy game would give me all of the necessary information to make a decision right at the point when I’m making that decision. Civ 6 doesn’t do that and it really should. BUT, I haven’t actually found any of the systems, once learned, complex enough that it bothers me too much.

Pip: I’m enjoying how right you think I am, although I think it’s in response to things I said in the RPS treehouse rather than here so I’ll outline the major problems I’ve run into so far. But let’s all remember how right I am.

Okay, so the big thing is that the AI really doesn’t seem to be creating any sense of progression. My interactions with it from turns 1-200 have been this weird mishmash of antagonism, reaction and friendliness which suddenly then tipped over into declaring a surprise war.

So, for example, The English and the Spanish are the main presences on my map right now. Victoria and Philip II were alternating between telling me I should be scared what with only having such a tiny army and that they really were impressed by someone with a standing army like mine, Victoria was also constantly asking for us to be formal friends and Spain seemed interested in trade.

Then Spain started moving troops into my hexes and suddenly declared war. England began amassing troops on my border and got cross when I put a defensive legion there, telling me not to be aggressive, but I had no way of asking England to pull back.

At one point Victoria told me she loved what I was doing with the continent we shared. Then she declared war. I feel like that’s an impossible narrative to read. It makes no sense, has no continuity on the surface, and the stuff that I guess it was affecting behind the scenes felt like it wasn’t visible to me. Not until I was trying to find out how to sue for peace, eventually discovering (after half an hour of Googling, trying to make sense of the Civilopedia, calling in my partner who has played the previous Civs and then turning to Twitter) that you can’t until ten turns into the war.

I mean, the game doesn’t even tell you that. It just said I had to click on people’s faces in the diplomacy menu and given that wasn’t an option so early in the war I thought my game had bugged.

Civilization 6 UI

Alec: Even UI issues – of which there are many, particularly in regard to diplomacy – aside, I think the key problem with diplomacy is that the game behaves as though you’re communicating with fixed personalities, but that’s not really the case. When you perform an action that affects another Civ, you’re actually affecting two different aspects of that Civ: their stated traits, and then the game as a whole’s agenda. And the game as a whole’s agenda is to stop or slow down your victory.

So I’ve also had several situations where people I’ve been super-chummy with have declared a surprise war, presumably at massive political cost to themselves, even though I have met almost every criteria to please them. However, the game makes them behave out of character.

On the one hand, that’s ridiculously frustrating because it means Johnny Spain or Sally Egypt can come screw up your campaign after you’ve put a ton of legwork into keeping everyone happy. On the other, well, isn’t that how people play IRL? We sense an opportunity or we see that someone’s on course to victory, so we start getting devious even though we would in theory be considered to be nice or generous or placid characters in other situations. It is, after all, a game.

The trouble is one of presentation: you absolutely believe that these characters behave the way the game says they do, so it’s infuriating when they all default to warmongering at certain points. I can tell myself that it’s the game making sure it gives me a challenge rather than an uncontested run, but it doesn’t entirely help. What it does mean is that I don’t trust anyone now – but perhaps that is only right. This is, after all, a race, not a co-operative.

That said, it really doesn’t help that critical information about what they really think about you and what might suddenly motivate a heel turn is tucked into sub-menus and tiny pop-ups and whatnot. The UI’s kind of a hot mess, really.

There is some stuff that flat-out seems broken also: in my current game I found out that I’d declared unprovoked war on two city states, causing the whole continent to catch fire as I was suddenly deemed to be Warmonger Supreme. Trouble was, I had not declared war on either of them. Some weird cat’s cradle of relationships and/or a bug had made that the case. Even though no-one else was at war with them. Can’t figure it out, but it set my victory back about 50 turns in the end.

Adam: Ugh, that’s rubbish. I had one bug, back with preview code, where I kept declaring war on myself. I was playing as Brazil and Pedro II would just arrive every now and then, even though I was he, and denounce me, then declare war. It didn’t actually mean anything, and I never saw it again, but it was mighty confusing and irritating.

On the subject of late-game surprise wars and all the rest of it, those kind of behaviours are one of the main things I was looking for when I started playing the game. There’s always a sense with a new Civ that it might care more about the culture that you actually decide to shape rather than the points that you’re accruing, and the more flavour the developers add, the more that seems to be the case.

And I think the gap between the animated leaders and the actual abstractions that drive them is a good microcosm of that whole issue – Civ 6 has great people and wonders and districts and religions and tourism and all the rest, but all of those things are numbers and rules by which to beat your opponents. They’re wearing fancy historical costumes, but Civ actually operates on all of these abstract rules, some of which have been in place since the very first game in the series, and they’re strongly competitive rules.

History and the development of culture is its theme more than a thing that actually informs progress through the game in a meaningful way.
That’s kind of an extreme summation of how I feel about it, but it’s more or less accurate, I think…

Pip: Is it helpful if I mention the other things that seem to be giving me grief right now?

Adam: As long as it’s not Gandhi. I think he’s surprisingly pleasant this time around, even if he does seem to have an affinity for supposedly randomly selected nuke-happy hidden agendas.

On the next page: we get cross about Amenities and Housing

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Who am I?

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about videogames.

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