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Civilization VI Brings The Series Back To Its Best

One million more turns

A month ahead of its release, I’ve spent a week with Civilization VI [official site]. The build of the game is near-complete, though only ten of the twenty civs are playable and there are some limits on startup settings. When I heard that I’d be able to play so much of the game so long before release, I hoped that was evidence of 2K’s confidence in what they had to show.

Whether that’s true or not, they should be brimming with confidence. Civ VI is excellent.

There are two things I want from a Civ game: a competitive race through history and strategy that allows for an element of roleplaying. The latter is something more associated with grand strategy than a Civ-like 4X, but I do enjoy guiding nations as I choose to rather than as the specific setup of a playthrough demands. Before I spent a week with Civ VI, I hoped it'd have elements of both competitive strategy and the more free-wheeling cultural/historical simulation that I crave.

After forty-seven hours of play, using several civilizations and various map sizes, I'm not so sure this latest Civ does succeed as a strategic historical sandbox. It's not that I necessarily expected it to, not to any great degree, but the main way in which Civ VI changes the script is by placing a greater emphasis on geography's ability to determine the shape of a civilization. That does mean that achieving greatness is often a case of working with what you have rather than choosing a route through history. The character and course of your nation, to a greater degree than ever before in the series, is determined by in-built specialisms, the leaders that you meet along the way, and the lay of the land.

If I had to describe what defines this interpretation of the Civ concept in a single statement, I would focus on the stronger emphasis on exploiting resources for short-term benefits. It’s a game that rewards reactive play, whether that be technology choices that allow you to gain a short-term advantage over a neighbour when a vulnerability has been identified, or a decision to concentrate on a long-term objective by crafting a city of singular purpose.

The good news is that while Civ VI may not give me everything that I might want, taken on its own terms it might well be the high-point of the series. It’s a remarkably intelligent 4X game that uses history and geography as a background for cultural, technological, religious and military competition. Victory is the goal. That might seem obvious, given that Civ has always been a series with strictly designed victory conditions, but I often play strategy games simply to play with the tools and systems rather than to win. In the case of grand strategy - and Crusader Kings II remains my top pick in that category - I don’t even know what winning looks like. What appears to be failure can be the most rewarding form of play.

Here, in Civ VI, I find myself doing everything I can to gain an advantage over my opponents, from the first turn to the last. What elevates the design of the game from good to spectacular is that there are enough tools and approaches to the use of those tools that no two victories look alike. A winning strategy must be flexible, adapting to major upheavals such as the aggression of the AI as well as minor factors, such as the placement of a river or the whims of a city state.

A great deal of the game’s strength comes from the changes to cities. They’re at the heart of every civilization (upper and lower case), working not only as the engine for your armies and researchers, but as the body of the entity you play as. Without a city, you are no longer a civilization.

Firaxis have rewritten the rules for cities completely. Visually, they’re more impressive, spreading across the tiles that they control rather than simply improving and exploiting them, but that visual change is a depiction of a new approach to cities as a game system. They’re made up of districts now, the first being a city centre that occupies the tile a settler settles on. There, you can build a monument to start the first trickle of cultural gains, and a few other basic buildings become available as you move through the tech tree.

It’s through the tech tree that new districts are unlocked as well, and they are built on the tiles around the city. You might have a campus by the mountain range to the north and a military encampment out on the plains, far from the city limits. There are rules for placement, with certain geographical features providing bonuses to certain districts, so even in its earliest stages, there is an ideal form for every city. The bustling University complex at the heart of my Washington was written in the stars when I founded the place five thousand years earlier, nestled by a ring of mountains that provided wise men and scientists with opportunities to study the heavens.

The new approach to cities succeeds so handsomely because it makes every single decision meaningful. If you’ve played any Civ game before, you’ll have ended up filling all of your cities with every available building at some point because...why not? Here, the ‘why not’ is written in the land: there simply isn’t enough space to have meaningful versions of every district in every city, and while you might build a few jack-of-all-trades settlements, it’s the specialised cities that make the most impact. Expending time and space on an industrial hub in a city that has a low upper limit on its manufacturing capabilities might be a waste.

Civ VI has been designed on similar principles to its best cities - it doesn’t waste your time. The “one more turn” phrase originally used (I believe) by fans and critics to describe the attraction of the series, which can turn a half hour play session into an all-night marathon, has become a marketing slogan. I find it an interesting phrase because the compulsive nature of the games has often seen me clicking end turn repeatedly while doing very little in between those clicks. Particularly in the later stages of a playthrough, Civ can become an exercise in waiting: waiting for a wonder to be completed, waiting for a declaration of war, waiting for the victory that you saw coming hours ago.

Lead designer Ed Beach and his team appear to have declared war on waiting. There are still quiet stretches but on the whole this is a very busy game, with lots of meaningful choices to make. Admirably, it manages to be both busy and lean. When Firaxis announced that all of the features from Civ V and its expansions would carry over, particularly religion, I was pleased, but slightly concerned that some factors might feel undercooked. With cities receiving so much attention, I hoped other aspects wouldn’t feel bolted on. That’s not the case; religion, pleasingly, can be absolutely vital, becoming an important part of the world whether you choose to concentrate on it or not.

Structurally, the approach to all things theological is similar to that in the previous game’s Gods and Kings expansion: first you develop a pantheon, which provides a single bonus (often tied to geography) and then you might grow that early belief system into an organised religion with extra bonuses and abilities unlocking over time. It’s a build your own beliefs kit and it works well for two reasons. First of all, it feels like an extension of the brand new (and excellent) card-based government and civics system rather than an odd mechanic, separated off from the rest of your choices. More importantly, it’s the most obvious example of the clever new approach to Great People.

Rather than being created out of thin air whenever a civ reaches a milestone, Great People now exist in the world and must be attracted to work their magic in your nation before another leader gobbles them up. You can see who’s out there, waiting to be recruited, by clicking on a dedicated Great People tab. Shakespeare might be looking for a patron if you click that tab later in the game.

In each category, there’s always one person available at any one time, and each is more expensive than the last. Until the well runs dry. That happens with Great Prophets, who can found religions, very early in the game. If you don’t manage to get one of those prophets before they’re gone, you don’t get to form a religion. That doesn’t mean your civ won’t have a religion though, because everyone who did get a prophet is going to be working hard to spread the word, using missionaries and apostles, because the more worshippers they have, the greater the benefits they’ll reap.

Civ VI is a game of systems that overlap in unexpected and interesting ways. Religion and Great People are a perfect example of that - a religion requires a Great Person and the faith that the religion generates can be used to attract MORE great people. They’re also attracted using points generated by buildings and districts associated with their type - build more libraries to attract writers and so on - but if you’re rich in either cash or faith, you can just throw some cash or catechisms their way to bring them on board.

That’s just one example of how you’re able to approach different problems with various tools. A mercantile nation can achieve power using great reserves of cash, but that doesn’t mean its power will necessarily be in the form of lucrative goods and trading houses. The Vatican wasn’t built with faith alone, after all, and in Civ VI just as in the world, the means by which you achieve dominance do not necessarily colour the ends of that dominance.

Diplomacy is where the game disappoints slightly. It’s not that the new additions - a rumour/intelligence system and much more sharply defined behavioural traits for opposing civs - don’t work, it’s that they feel like a strong foundation rather than the finished article. You learn about the actions of other civs through traders and ambassadors, and the more contact you have (of various sorts), the more access you gain. It's the one area of the game where the process of learning and advancing feels out of my control though. While it's convenient to get some extra insight due to a trade route, I've never found it a strong enough reason to build that trade route rather than any other.

It’s testament to how much of the game does feel like a particularly fine finished article that diplomacy stands out. It’s the least attractive room in a very elegant house rather than the faulty foundation that could make the whole thing fall apart.

The traits work well. Each leader has one historic trait that is always in place and one secondary trait that is selected randomly. That is hidden and you’ll only learn what it is through observation of a civ’s behaviour or through intelligence agents. Harald Haradra, the leader of Norway, likes to raid coastal villages. He always does. That’s his thing. He looks slightly sad when he has to inform you that your coastal cities are “all too easy to raid”, as if the raiding is an instinct that he can’t control. If you’re going to build on the coast and don’t have a strong navy, Harald is going to make problems for you.

Where communication with leaders works, it’s used to inform you about the game’s rules, using flavoursome dialogue (with animated figures that are impressive though repetitive caricatures), but even in the late stages, when diplomatic options really open up, I’ve never built a civ based around those options. I’ve controlled the world using faith, firepower and finances, but never through sheer cunning and Machiavellian manipulation. There are some smart additions in the form of greater reputation hits for civs that go against the rules of war - which themselves change through the eras - but diplomacy is the one area that, after the hours I’ve spent, feels functional rather than fascinating.

The actual behaviour of the AI is fascinating though. In a way, they’re more predictable than ever, the AI leaders, because they have such distinct personalities, based around likes and dislikes. But that makes the combinations that can appear across the globe exciting to encounter. In one game, I ended up sharing a continent with Philip II of Spain and Mvemba a Nzinga of Kongo. Philip hates anyone who spreads their religion in his territory, or fails to follow whatever one true faith he’s cooked up in any given playthrough, while Mvemba looks down on any civ that doesn’t have enough faith in its faith to spread it among his own people.

The contrast led to a classical era in which I knew I was going to be the cause of a brutal religious war and I had to work very carefully to ensure whoever I didn’t piss off was going to take my side when that war happened. That's a microcosm of how the AI works: it's aggressive but you can read its intentions and motives, allowing you to plan. The predictability does make for a lack of surprises (though there are some moments that have left me scratching my head) but the legibility of the other civs is, on the whole, a strength.

War, when it comes, is better than it’s ever been. Civ V changed the rules by removing unit stacks and Civ VI makes intelligent tweaks to those rules, allowing some support units to travel with armies (usually to help with sieges and city bombardment) and reinforcing the importance of terrain. It really is hard to overstate how much more important the map is this time around. When I founded a city that had two rivers running around it, I was as happy as I’ve ever been when completing a wonder of the world because approaching armies would be slowed to a halt, and I could easily deploy units in strong defensive positions. Combat requires smart tactical thinking rather than force of numbers and technological superiority (those things help as well, of course), and that makes even the largest war engaging rather than a tedium of clicking.

I’m going to spend more time unpicking the specifics of each new or changed mechanic in a diary series, where I’ll play a game to completion and critique the systems while I tell the story. Right now, I’m happy to say that Civ VI is a game that respects the time you spend with it. The gaps between important decisions have been reduced and that seems to be a driving factor in the entire design. Before moving to Firaxis, Ed Beach created complex historical boardgames and here we’re seeing how someone with that background builds a game when there’s a computer available to do the heavy-lifting and to keep track of a thousand different facts and figures. It’s an intricate, thoughtful and competitive game, built on lots of complicated intertwined systems. Cleverly, it hides its complications, not just behind a colourful and attractive aesthetic (and after spending so much time with it, I’m even more convinced that this is a beautiful game; look at that fog of war map design) but by keeping the machinery hidden. You can play, and win, without spending too much time looking at the numbers, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t doing an awful lot of calculating in the background.

Almost every addition and change that has been made works to the player’s benefit. The splitting of tech into two separate trees means you’ll be making decisions much more often, and the cards that unlock and are used to build and alter your government are always there to play with. City States, the minor nations introduced in Civ V, require much less attention than previously. This is a game that respects your time, not just happy to have you take one more turn but eager to make that turn as meaningful and memorable as possible.

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