As if 2016 didn't already contain a rich enough seam of strategy games, Firaxis announce today that Civilization VI will be released on October 21st. Development duties are in the hands of the team behind Civ V's expansions, Gods & Kings and Brave New World, and when we spoke to designer Ed Beach and associate producer Sarah Darney last week to learn all the details, they told us that almost every system from the complete Civ V will be included in the sequel: trade routes, religious systems, archaeology...there'll be no need to wait for expansions, it's all in the base game.
The game is running on a brand new suite of software, built to be far more mod-friendly than its predecessor, and as well as brand new AI systems, there are a host of new mechanics that will explore and emphasise your relationship with Civ's greatest character: the map.
The most immediately notable change in Civ V as compared to IV lay in the handling of military units. No longer could armies be stacked one on top of another, taking up space in the same tile. As well as preventing the creation of 'doom stacks', single-tile armies of formidable strength that encouraged mass production of military units for both defense and attack, Civ V's approach allowed for tactical combat utilising features of the map. Strong defensive units could be placed around weaker units with ranged weapons, and deploying around rivers and mountains was more involved than previously.
Civilization VI does to the city what Civilization V did to the military.
Beach refers to the new mechanic as "unstacking the cities". "The unstacking of armies revolutionised the way the military side of the game played out and we're making a similar change on the economic side of the game. Everything is now placed on the map, blowing the cities apart. All of the upgrades that you build are now spread across the landscape in the area of control of each city."
This isn't simply a cosmetic change, although it should make for urban landscapes much more visually varied than Civ V's cities, so often surrounded by hexes thick with repetitive farms, trading posts and other improvements. The main purpose of the change is to encourage a stronger connection to the geography of your nation.
Civilization, by its very nature, has always been a series that explores the player's relationship to the history of their nation. History is the element through which you move and the very fabric of the game - the Civilopedias down through the years have been the gateway to wider historical reading for me, and the city-centric view of society is an integral element of the games, both mechanically and academically.
With Civ VI, Beach and his team want to elevate the importance of geography. Location has always been important, of course - that first choice of where to settle and whether to burn a few decades searching for the perfect river delta is one of the key moments in any Civ playthrough, from I to V. Civ VI will mark the first time that the geography of your nation influences every aspect of the game, however, from city specialisations to military tactics and research.
It's the latter connection - between the tech tree and terrain - that could change the flow of the game most dramatically. When I suggest that the new features seem designed to encourage flexible playstyles, ensuring that players don't conform to routines, Beach agrees.
"You've hit on one of the main themes. We want to break people out of their consistent playstyles. When we look at the way people play, we see certain strategies that are used again and again - they're the best practice for the early game or the mid-game. We're calling the new approach to technology "active research" and it takes a sledgehammer to the old method, to stop people from doing the same thing every time they play.
"Your situation on the map is going to influence how you approach the tech tree for the first time. In previous Civ games, you picked what you wanted to research and then people worked at it. It wasn't particularly interesting and it wasn't integrated with what you're doing in the world, so we looked for a way to tie research into what your civilization is doing out in the world and on the map.
"In Civ VI, almost every node on the tech tree has a boost attached to it - kind of like a miniature quest that you can fulfill to speed up the tech. For example, the masonry boost requires stone blocks and quarries. You can research that tech by hand without access to stone, but if you can find a quarry site and get one up and going, you unlock the tech boost and that gives you half of the research points needed for masonry."
Your geographical situation should always influence the short- and long-term goals that mark your journey through history.
"Think about naval research - [in previous Civ games] you could research sailing and navigation, even if you're landlocked in the middle of a continent. Now you can still try to do that but it's going to take you forever. It's usually more sensible to hold off on that until you actually have found the ocean, so you can settle a city on the coast to unlock the first boost toward sailing. Then maybe you need to build fishing boats to boost the next naval tech.
"You can't just burn through the tech tree the same way in every game because the map is going to force you to think through things."
And the same should be true of construction and improvements. With cities now spreading across the tiles they control, it'll be more important than ever to specialise, using the land to your advantage. As with research, the districts that make up a city - and there are twelve types of district in total - can take advantage of geographical features. Beach explains:
"Where do scientists study? One good place is near diverse types of life, so a scientific campus will gain bonuses if it's near a rainforest tile. And maybe they're trying to figure out how the stars and heavens work, in which case an astronomical observatory might be a good idea. That's going to get a bonus if it's placed near a mountain."
Sticking with the example of a city specialising in science, all of the buildings, whether labs, libraries or universities, will require a specific type of district to support them. Rather than having a city surrounded by mines and railroads, funneling cash into the city centre to fund research, Civ VI will see research campuses and other districts placed around the city, using the lay of the land to their advantage where possible.
The interface will help you to decide on a spot for new cities, as in the past, recognising which tiles will work best for different district types, taking into account everything from their terrain type to adjacency bonuses that make district-building like "a little puzzle". Cities can still control up to 36 hexes but the number of improvements that they'll need to work the land has been reduced, with districts moving in to fill the gaps.
There's one other major change that Firaxis are already prepared to discuss: AI.
"A lot of Civ VI was built by looking at where Civ V worked really well and where it wasn't as strong as we had hoped. The variety offered by leaders in the world was a place where we could see room to improve. We were really pleased with the different experiences that people had playing as the different civs, right down to the the exceptional nature of the Polynesian or Venetian civs, but when you played against the AI, the differences weren't as apparent.
Every AI leader in the game now has a set of agendas - personality quirks that inform how they approach the game. As well as providing a twist on how they play, these make each leader something of a known quantity because one of their agendas will always be a 'historical' pick, based on their personality. That allows you to anticipate how they might behave - no news yet as to how Ghandi's agenda might affect his Civ reputation - but there will also be a random agenda applied to leaders, which you'll only be able to discover by observing them, or through trading and diplomatic contacts.
That brings me to the final areas in which change is brewing. Diplomacy will be overhauled but Firaxis aren't ready to talk about the specifics of that just yet; they're only just announcing the game, after all. From the few details I did manage to gather, it seems that the key to the new diplomacy may well be in the way that interactions change through the eras of a campaign. It begins very informally, with the sending of gifts, basic trading and declarations of war, but eventually becomes formalised and more complex as embassies and their ambassadors spread across the world. There will be, Beach says, more than one way to declare war.
War itself is changing as well. Beach is satisfied with the one unit per tile approach but wanted to "eliminate some of the congestion" that it caused. To that end, units can now be organised into a formation, which means they'll always move together rather than having to be shuffled across the map one at a time. Formations can be applied to large collections of military units or civilian units and their escorts.
There are also new support class units, many of which were formally designated as military units in Civ V. These are units that are more sensibly depicted as special equipment embedded with a larger unit rather than standalone figures on the map. I'd expect the likes of anti-air and anti-tank units to fall into that category, along with other specialists. It'll also be possible, under certain circumstances, to stack two or three units of the same type to create a powerful combined force. These are exceptions to the non-stacking rule rather than symptomatic of a shift away from it.
A new appreciation of the map, through those research boosts and city districts, sounds like a splendid way to shake up the Civ formula. The retention of features from Civ V's expansions is almost as exciting as any of the new features though. I'm increasingly coming to expect new games - particularly sequels - to act as a foundation for future growth rather than as a continuation of what came before. If Civilization VI can buck that trend by building intelligently on its immediate predecessor with some bright ideas of its own, October can't come soon enough.
Civilization VI will be out October 21st and we'll be taking a close look at it in the near future.