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
Pip:I don't even have Gandhi on my current map so you're safe.
One of the things is the aforementioned Amenity stuff. I feel like there should be a way to quickly see what you have on the map that's granting amenity stats, and what's on the production list that would do likewise. It seems really weird to me that that stuff is present as a problem so often but is then presented as a kind of secondary stat, or one you need to hunt for or internalise through a lot of play. Same with housing. Same with so much, actually. I just want easier ways to find out how to meet the criteria the game wants from me instead of hovering over things and squinting at tiny icons.
Adam: I think I probably internalise a lot of these things either very quickly or in a very slapdash way that means I just vaguely understand them and that’s enough. Amenities confused me for a little while but I’m fine with them now and the same with housing. Although I don’t think the word ‘Amenities’ helps me to understand what they’re for, and I wish they were just referred to as some extension of Luxuries so the connection was more apparent.
But the actual Amenities system itself works really well, even if it is (and I agree again) far too opaque. It’s an effective way of encouraging broad expansion or tightly controlled monopolies, because it can support a tiny but dense civ just as easily as it can support a scattered one.
Civilization 6 Victories
Pip: Another thing that I find all the time is that it seems hard to know where you're going with any of it. What I mean is that a domination victory seems pretty obvious in terms of how you pursue it, but so many of the other things seems really woolly. I can't quite get a handle on what constitutes a pathway towards particular things.
I wanted to get really good at trading, but you can't seem to do that in the same single-minded way as you can with military. I never aggressed at anyone, just maintained a few legions on my borders, but I'm now on the receiving end of two wars and I feel a bit lost. Like, I should have specialised in the military regardless of what I wanted to do because that's what you need to do to win.
I mean, I guess that's how actual civilisations probably end up doing things as well, but to me it feels like it makes everything that isn't a military victory this overly complex balancing act that just isn't enjoyable, because your progress towards anything is constantly hampered by having the military as this side-development.
I can't work out how much of that is me really really really not being the right person for a 4X game and how much is other things coming into play. Maybe opacity, maybe particular victory conditions forming a difficulty selection of sorts…. I dunno. All I know is that I try to play and create and follow paths but I frequently feel like I'm treading water, heading in no particular direction and just picking tech and research and civics with no ability to see a bigger picture or more long-term plan.
Alec: I can understand why it’s still felt that there have to be wars - fear of boredom or insufficient challenge - but it’s a shame they haven’t found a more elegant system than ‘Greece has declared war on you.’
In terms of making that stuff more relevant to pursuing a cultural or scientific path, there’s probably something to be done in terms of how modern wars work in the west - Europe and America want to be peaceful but keep getting dragged into horrible stuff because of worldwide socio-political issues, and in terms of culture they might be said to be failing at that if they do nothing about e.g. Syria. But man, replicating that kind of spiderweb of 21st century foreign policy would be a game unto itself.
I do want to say some positive stuff about the game though, because God knows it’s managed to devour dozens of hours of my life over a few short days, so clearly it’s doing a ton right. With Civ V at launch, I felt like I was playing another, lesser strategy game calling itself Civilization, and it had to earn that right back across the course of several expansions. It didn’t hook in the way IV and even III had - not because it was different in its systems (though I think it chopped too much away), but because it felt so dry.
With Civ 6, I really do feel like I’m playing Civ right out of the gates - it’s remarkable how much it reminds me of the first ever game in the series. There’s a certain balance and pull of development vs competition that’s really present and correct, and now it’s accompanied by this delightful, colourful, busy appearance it feels surprisingly fresh, once one can get past its failure to explain stuff like Amenities. (And indeed Victory conditions - I’ve almost finished a campaign in which I’m told I’m leading in both Science and Culture, but still have no idea what the end point for the latter will be.)
I love the way cities now sprawl all over the map. In the past, it was still too reliant on coloured tiles to suggest heightened technology and population, but now it looks like the world developing so much more. Even to the point that I actually feel quite guilty about how many lovely fields and hills are now covered with pumps and mines and fences. Couple this with the attempted new personality-led Diplomacy system, even though it falls at several hurdles, and this is the most alive-feeling Civ has ever been. I just feel good when it’s there, open on my screen, being this busy, bright sprawl of stuff.
Civilization 6 Learning Curve
Pip: I think I'm going to be the negative one here, because I'm genuinely trying to get into this game – I've approached it willing to learn, and willing to try to figure this stuff out or Google it or ask Adam or whoever when I'm not sure, and yet I feel really lost in terms of the decision-making a lot of the time. It's reached the point where I've just started to become bored with the whole thing, and that's so frustrating.
I know Adam has said it's all about learning from your mistakes and so on, but when you're starting out it just becomes this awful morass of variables and screens and subscreens, and the personalities of the AI don't feel like they make sense enough that I can use them as a frame of reference and I'm flailing around with my own decisions to the point where I don't feel like my own Civ has a coherent identity to latch onto either.
I'm now stuck in these two wars, where my opponents have massively higher military points on the world leader tracker thingummy so…. Do I just give up? It feels impossible and, frankly, boring right now. A personality/game clash combined with some not great UI and a learning curve that really leans on you having played many other 4X/Civ games.
Adam: It sounds like you’re probably going to lose if they’re really far ahead of you, but if you’re bored, you’ve already lost. I think Louis B Mayer said that and if he didn’t, he should have done.
I’m always a bit glum when something that I love doesn’t manage to win over everyone else - obviously, when I was a younger man I used to want the things I loved to be mine and mine alone and hated it if they ever became popular, but these days I just like to sit back and go, “Look at that! Isn’t it just great?”
And even though I wish Civ 6 were better at explaining itself - and that it had better diplomacy, which we could bang on about all day - I don’t think that’d be enough to win you over. I think you want a historical strategy game that isn’t quite as concerned with success and failure, and that is more character-driven and capable of creating compelling and credible stories.
Pip. Have I ever spoken to you about Crusader Kings II? Because, seriously, you’d either love it or you’d take two clicks on its unholy interface and then kill me immediately.
Pip: I might give that a go when I have a spare moment. The patch notes have always been a delight! Oh! Hang on, would you like to assess my military stats and tell me how fucked I am on a scale of one to surrender immediately?
Adam: I’ll do my best Cleopatra impression. SHOW ME YOUR COMPARATIVE MILITARY STRENGTH
On the next page: Pip shows us her comparative military strength. Also, learning curves and why Civ is like Dota.
Pip: Right. Spain has 782 points. England has 847 points. The Mighty Pip Empire has 201 points.
Adam: You know those villages that you can snaffle up to get little bonuses in the early game? I think that’s how England probably sees you right now.
Pip: The Mighty Pip Empire seems a tad ambitiously named in the face of your verdict.
Adam: Not my verdict. I’m channelling Cleopatra here. Adam would say something like, “Go get ‘em! It’ll be alright on the night. You can do it!” He’s an optimistic idiot.
A quick note on the military side actually. I think the more aggressive barbarians are an indication that things are going to be rougher - it’s a lot harder to keep farms from being razed than it ever used to be, and much more important to keep a few warrior units around to mop up camps. I think that’s true throughout the game - I used to pride myself on playing pacifist Civ and that does seem much trickier now.
I keep a standing army within my borders all the time, just to make sure nobody thinks I’m a pushover. And I like that - I said in my review that one of the things I enjoy about Civ 6 is that it makes me play way outside my comfort zone, in terms of trying new playstyles, and the military side has been very good for that.
Pip: For me it's just felt so difficult to even start seeing where things went wrong. I mean you could obviously say I should have made different military decisions, but then, I don't see the hints at how to balance those out with other things. I think this must be how other people feel when they try MOBAs, so I get that a big part of this is just that I enjoy different things, but my frustration creeps in because I was trying really hard to get to grips with at least something of the game and it still feels so slippery and inaccessible.
Civilization 6 Difficulty
Alec: I’m reminded of when you took us through Dota and even though the internal logic of it just seemed so flippin’ crazy, the fun came out once we at least knew what did what. I guess something similar is needed here for you and anyone else who feels it’s too heavy on presumed knowledge.
I have all these frustrations with Civ 6, particularly from a UI or presentation of information perspective, but it isn’t stopping me from having a whale of a time, cos I have the benefit of knowing for years how the nuts and bolts of it work. If it’s failed to explain those nuts and bolts, then it’s failed in a big way. But there are millions of people who won’t feel like that, I guess.
It is worth going into it with two things at the forefront of your mind: 1) the game wants to win too, and difficulty settings affect how likely it is to do that 2) it is emulating the world in its way. I mean, no nation doesn’t have an army, no matter how much we want John Lennon’s Imagine to come true. If a nation has no defence, someone is going smell blood sooner or later. It’s whether it’s communicating that well enough or not, I guess.
At the gentler difficulties you can usually pull back from an unexpected rout, but if you’re having a crap time perhaps you won’t want to bother. I’m having a really good time so I don’t mind that it can take hours before I understand this or that system, but I do have the presumed knowledge.
Pip: I was playing whatever the setting is just below average difficulty. And i do take the point about it trying to model real world civs, I think the point I'm meandering towards here is that, given this playthrough seems doomed because of the aforementioned situations with England and Spain, I don't feel equipped to unpick the loss and work out how to behave differently beyond "do more soldiering".
Like, I've spent eight hours to get to this point, so I'd want a further eight hours to build on that, or to improve, right? That feels like a sensible aim. So that's the point I'm at right now. I've got this loss, but I don't understand how to translate that into learning that doesn't feel – how do I put it – equally flaily? Does that make sense?
Alec: One other thing I’d say: it’s OK to lose. Back in Civ 1 I lost a bunch and that felt like how it was supposed to be (see also: X-COM vs XCOM), but over time I’ve become more expectant that I should win because it’s my game that I paid for and I’m super-special and all that lovely entitlement. But yeah, there’s this additional issue of understanding why you’ve lost. In a military sense it can usually be dragged back to ‘you didn’t invest in enough defence because you were getting too carried with with building other stuff so you got stomped’, but if someone’s winning on Religion or Culture it really doesn’t say why that is.
Pip: I think that's the thing. I'm fine with losing when I'm learning. I lose MOBAs all the time, but there's an incremental improvement, usually – either in terms of understanding more about a character or just knowing how an interaction works or something. Right now the number of things to learn is huge and I don't have the little footholds to start digging in and chipping away at the information.
In another world or with another game type I'd go "Okay, you want more military? I will give you more military. MILITARY WITH BELLS ON." And that would be the next iteration in the experiment and I'd start to learn from that, the pendulum swinging from extreme to extreme as I felt out the parameters of the game. But on a personal level, I'm not enjoying it enough to then plug that next eight hours in. Or the eight after that.
Alec: Experiments in Civ can take tens of hours, unfortunately.
Civilization 6 Speed
Adam: If you set it to the shortest length of game, it’s not as bad to speed through, particularly for a Domination victory. And Domination is kind of Civ on easy mode in a way - it’s what to go for if you’re not ready to think about all of the other stuff yet. Which is a faintly melancholy in a way - if you don’t have time to think about culture, just kill everyone. How very UNcivilised.
It’s the City States I feel for. They just go about their business, making little armies, playing nice (most of the time) with everyone, but they’re like civs that someone took to the vet when they were puppies. No way to spread beyond that single city, doomed to be a plaything for the great powers as history passes them by. Poor things. I think they’re a good example of what Civ 6 is though, as an entry in the series - introduced in Civ V and sort of annoying to deal with there, they’ve been held over and made to fit in with the general flow of the game much more comfortably. But they are still yet another wrinkle in an increasingly wrinkly game.
It’s strange to think that when the screenshots first appeared, the internet yelped about “dumbing down” because of the colours and what some people saw as being “mobile game” characteristics. If anything, Civ 6 is too busy though, which, for me, is great. I want to unpick it for years and providing the diplomacy does get serious attention in patches or DLC, I think the foundations for even that side have positive aspects to them.
Alec: I think UI has to be first priority - if folk like Pip are bouncing off it because its systems aren’t clear enough and the learning process isn’t there, something’s gone properly wonky, I hope they can take a sledgehammer to how they present information before they think about shoving even more stuff in there.
Anyway, I’m four turns from a Scientific Victory but each turn now takes almost five minutes to resolve, so I’m losing my mind. I’m simultaneously horrified and comforted that they haven’t managed to fix this age-old problem yet.
Adam: I used to dream of Civ in the age of SSD. Turns out, it’s the same as Civ in the stone age in some ways.