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17 Day-One Observations About Civilization VI

Pros and cons of the new Civ

Unlike Adam, I've not been lucky enough to spend the last month soaking in a deep Civilization VI [official site] bath, so I leave it to him to give you the complete picture. I've spent a big chunk of today with Firaxis' latest historical turn-based strategy epic though, and already it's filled me up with things to say about it. I'm genuinely surprised by how different it feels. There are reasons why I'm massively charmed by it, and there are reasons why it's been frustrating me.

I'm going to present this is a gallery sorta thing, as it's easier to show off what I'm talking about this way.

If you’ve not used one of our galleries before, these are the ropes: click the arrows below each image (or on top, in the case of the first one) to progress back and forth, or use your cursor keys.

I'm a big fan of how many building upgrades now take up a hex of their own, rather than are just placed within a city's centre. Visually, you get a sense of sprawl, a map that looks increasingly civilized as a campaign wears on; strategically, you need to make difficult judgements about what tiles and therefore resources you sacrifice for your new structure. It makes the act of completing a construction a decision rather than just another button clicked on the tech tree.

The art style is extremely, almost uncharacteristically cheerful and cartoonish. It puts me in mind of the pop and fizz of the console and mobile Civilization: Revolution games, designed to be far more accessible and quick to play than the main line titles. These were much-maligned by some fans for cutting Civ strategy down to the bone, though I had a great time with them, embracing them for what they were meant to be - a speedy spin-off designed to completed in an evening rather than a week.

I've already seen a few people objecting to the exaggerated look of Civ VI, but I think it looks perfectly delightful (a word you're going to see me use repeatedly in this feature): almost like a miniatures tabletop game. It's worth remembering that the fan-favourite Civ IV went for exaggerated too, albeit more constrained by the technology of its time, long before Civ V revisited the series' more austere roots.

The character models for the leaders are spectacular, with excellent animations too. I spent some time trying to establish if I was looking at FMV instead of a 3D model - that's how great they look. Tons and tons of personality to them too: hard to believe that this came from the same studio as the recent, dour Civ: Beyond Earth.

A fly in the impeccably-presented ointment is the user interface, which is frankly all over the place. For instance, you get a row of icons top-left showing how many Envoys or Trade Routes you have available, but for some reason have to skip over to the top-right and click on a row of near-identical icons if you want to actually do anything with said envoys or routes. It's both a waste of space and a frustration, as even a few hours in I'm still finding myself clicking on an icon that does nothing.

There's a creeping sense throughout of someone not being entirely sure where to put every toggle, too. For instance, Envoys (a rather nebulous new system which affects relations with and income from City States, but which rather doubles-up with Trade Routers) have to be assigned by clicking on the two tiny gold arrows in the screenshot above, as opposed to pressing on a big, clicky button like most everything else in the game. It took me an age this work this out, and for a time I was convinced I'd run into a bug because I had an Envoy I couldn't seem to assign anywhere.

Our Adam, who's played various Civ VI builds over recent months, notes that this part of the UI has changed several times, so clearly it's presented issues and has settled on fiddly compromise. This is but one example of various tiny interface problems that make coming to Civ VI fresh just a touch more arduous than it needs to be.

While I'm whinging about UI, I'll note that the main menu seems to come from a completely different game. Most of the 'buttons' in-game are tactile and inviting, whereas the flat outlines on the main menu barely look or 'feel' like buttons at all. No biggie obviously, it's just a shame that the first thing you see lacks the fizz of the game itself.

Another difficulty Civ VI seems to have faced is how to present its more complex systems. It goes out of its way to make many of its concepts accessible and slow-burn if you’re new to the game, then just a few turns in you’re presented with a vast, scrolling list of ‘Pantheon Beliefs’ to choose from, most of which affect concepts, statistics and resources you’re a long way off encountering yet. Fine once you know the ropes, but blimey: it’s throwing you straight into the deep end.

Not helping matters at all is that ‘Pantheon Beliefs’ is an entirely different system to Religion, which shows up a bit later and involves cherry-picking yet more stats/boosts/etc. There’s a bunch of stuff like that, such as Civic Policies and Government, the reworked Great People and Great Works, and sending Delegates, Trade Routes and Envoys to other Civs or City States. Many mechanics crossover with each other, and it can feel like spinning half a dozen near-identical plates.

It’s great to have the choice and flexibility, but Civ VI doesn’t do a great job of explaining itself – there’s a great deal of presumed knowledge here, and, as with the Total War games and their ongoing refusal to much cater to newcomers, the newbie tutorials give up the ghost far too early. Less of a problem for old hands, obviously, but it’s odd given how ‘hey everyone, come and play!’ the game carries itself visually.

I’ve mentioned City States a couple of times; for the initiated these are AI-controlled mini-Civilizations that only ever constitute one city and do not contest with anyone else for power. They were introduced in Civ V, and have always been a slightly uncomfortable fit: you’ve got to believe that there are a bunch of nations which are completely uninterested in and even immune to growth.

In this dread of age of Take Back Control and Make America Great again, it’s rather reassuring to have this suggestion that not everyone wants to be a chest-thumping empire, but given how many other systems are in play now, they do feel a bit like clutter to me.

It's a shame they don't even get, say, a randomly-assigned leader to talk to so they have some personality - instead they're just these lone zits on the map. Of course, for the careful and canny player they're a vital source of resources, so shouldn't be ignored.

There's a bigger deal made, visually speaking, of building a Wonder of the World than there has been for a while. In the last couple of games, I've felt like these were just big statistical boosts and didn't take much pride in the fact I'd constructed something enormous, but Civ VI's presentation hammers home that these are grand designs. It takes me back to the original Civ - I was so excited to see these things get built. In Civ VI I am again, because they look ace.

There's a neat new system known as 'Boosts', whereby various in-game actions such as building x units of a certain type or stumbling across the Great Barrier Reef speeds up research times on certain techs. As well as giving us our Skinner box fix of drip-fed micro-rewards - an impetus to keep hooked even when you're just waiting for stuff to complete - it helps direct decisions about what to do next if you're not sure what you need or nothing seems particularly relevant. 'Ooh, ooh, I'll pick the quickest one with the nice purple swoosh underneath it!'

It's a neat addition, both stylistically and because it may encourage trying different things rather than aggressively sticking to one particular route up the tech tree.

One of the reasons the new art style really sings is how it can make even the least interesting units much more appealing. Scouts (high movement but low combat units generally used to map the world in the early game) are something I've often all but ignored in other Civ games, as I prefer to send out a slower but hardier Warrior instead, but look at this guy: out there with his Littlest Hobo, seeing the world. It's just delightful - and 'delightful' is the adjective I keep on coming back to for Civ VI as a whole.

Another reason it's delightful: the world is presented as a map, complete with borders. Tiles your units are on or can see are coloured in, while those out of range adopt a colourless pencil art look, like someone's Here Be Dragons illustrations on a centuries-old map. To think how long we put up with boring old fog of war for when we could have had this.

Great People and Great Works have been reworked, and frankly I'm still getting to grips with it: the requirements to make or use one are far more specific and opaque than before. There's thoughtfulness behind it, though. For instance, Great People are now presented as finite roster of familiarly-named superheroes, from a pool that's shared by everyone, in the manner of Wonders. E.g. If someone else recruits Marco Polo before you, that's it, he's gone.

It's a neat conceit, getting across that geniuses are rare and precious, not just something that gets auto-generated after enough magic points are acquired.

There's much more in the way of bulletins about what's going on with the other Civs. These guys aren't just fighting or not-fighting, but have specific creeds and likes/dislikes that bring them into alliance or conflict with others (and you, of course), and there are regular updates about how their attitudes are affecting the political make-up of the world.

Though it also means you get haunting information about how chummy a neighbour is with someone you haven't even met yet, and who will surely team up to crush you any turn now.

The strategic map is, well, delightful. A 2D, bird's eye overview of the entire world that's ever so boardgame-y. Seeing it fill up with colour and detail as you see and build across more of the world is a treat, and a useful reminder of what's really going on when you can't see the woods for the trees.

It's got purpose too - for instance, the main view doesn't make it easy to establish what type of tile a given hex is, and scouring the world for units you've set to rest or Fortify is a whole lot easier in this mode. (Though it can also be done by clicking on the name of a selected unit, which pops-up a list of all your other units - another example of an essential feature getting tucked away somewhere strange to try and minimise on-screen bloat).

The Arctic and Antarctic icefields at top and bottom of the map look so pretty that I'm genuinely devastated I can't build shivering, starving fisherfolk settlements on it. I want an ice age add-on, basically.

You cannot rename your cities. Repeat, cannot rename your cities. So you're stuck with the default names for 'em. Reportedly this will be fixed in a patch, but that a Civilization game could somehow be shipped with one of its most beloved and long-standing features somehow overlooked is frankly flabbergasting.

You can, however, give some military units their own names once they've been promoted a couple of times. Hello, Ian Archer, Ian Scout and Ian Warrior.

Cleopatra is a total, total dickhead. Oh my God. Like I say, every Leader has specific likes and dislikes, which you can exploit to endear yourselves to them or fall prey to if you don't meet certain criteria. Cleopatra has the killer combo of despising people with small armies and despising people without much wealth, which means a) good luck being a pacifist nation if you start off anywhere near Egypt and b) because having a large army is expensive, you almost certainly will be poor.

Cleo's an absolute nightmare, and I suffered a near-wipeout in the Medieval era in my first campaign because I just could not impress her sufficiently and eventually she let slip the dogs of war. Poor old Marc Anthony.

Obviously, this is brilliant.

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