Civilization 6 is the latest in Sid Meier’s 25-year-old franchise of global growth and domination and, while it doesn’t rest on its laurels, neither does it strive to do anything especially different to its predecessors.
In any other game, this would be considered the height of laziness. In Civilization‘s case, its surprising to find that minimal changes are exactly what you want.
The Civ games are the apotheosis of the video game power fantasy. They allow you to shape the fate of cities, of militaries, and of entire nations. They give you enormous power and gently insist that you make the most of it.
You may preside over vast kingdoms and ravening hordes of soldiers, crafting your nation’s fortunes just so, deliberating policy and interacting with other heads of state — all from your bed, where you sit in your underwear scoffing Vege Chips. You may be financially destitute and struggling to pay your bills. You may be fifteen kilos heavier than you’d like to be but you can make the British bend the knee as you march on London.
Civilization 6‘s greatest trick, as it was with previous games in the series, is making you feel like you absolutely run this shit. It allows you to believe that you truly do have a long term plan for your people, that goals you have set and continue to achieve will elevate them to greatness. You expand your empire, your reach. You hoover up resources and land. And then, when the time is right, after years of fostering relationships and maintaining careful diplomacy, you crush your neighbours in a storm of blood and fire, leaving you the sole victor and ruler of the world.
Civ 6 takes the overlapping, turn-based systems of earlier titles and does a good enough job of restructuring them that it can claim to be something more refined and advanced than it was before. But while there may be a few changes here and there that alter the slow march to victory in tiny ways, Civ 6 still conducts itself in largely the same way it always has. It is remarkably unconcerned with innovation and, for some reason, possibly because that core game loop has always been so good, it can get away with it.
In the 1991 original, the aim of the game was a reasonable simulation of human history as told through the rise and fall of various powerful civilisations. Many of these civilisations were known for their ability to take land, usually from others. That continues unchanged today.
Every game in the Civ franchise starts you off as the fairly small fry leader of a tiny little village. You begin to build a name for yourself, growing your village into a town, and then a city. You begin to attract the attention of the bigger fish. You prosper through science, military superiority and an unshakeable belief that you are the best.
I take what I want and give nothing back, hoarding resources from mines, plantations and farms. I push out my borders at a relentless rate, devouring fresh resources to keep my neighbours and political rivals from obtaining them first. This does not stop until I control the entire map. My rivals will either be willingly absorbed into my empire or crushed into oblivion if they resist. The barbarian raiders that trouble me in my early days are hunted to extinction as I launch my first spacecraft into the stars.
Given its American heritage, there’s a very American feel about the way Civ 6 does its business. These are and have always been games about conquering the land and exploiting what you can for substantial gain. You as a player force yourself on these new lands, imprinting them with your ideologies, your weapons and your inventions.
Indeed, culture and the arts are often afterthoughts in Civ. They’re always there, but you can’t accomplish them without significant bloodshed. Many go for the Domination victory from the off, generating intense military might and crushing all comers. Jumping into the mid-advanced Emperor difficulty will see you besieged by barbarians in the early game and they’ll put up a fight when you resist. You will then be immediately attacked by one of your neighbours. All of this will happen before Turn 100. My usual tactic of playing the mind-my-own-business, potter-away-in-the-background-until-its-time-for-my-nukes-to-blot-out-the-sun simply doesn’t work at that level.
Meier’s goal with the constant threat of annihilation is to spur you on. Nobody ever got anything done by being complacent, and complacency in Civ will get you destroyed. The game has always been built with the idea that you will march out and start a fight at some point and its here that Civ 6 shows its limits.
I’m a mid-game kind of person, by which I mean I build smaller, more neatly run civilisations. Military might isn’t something I spend too much time thinking about until later on, and even then I usually only keep enough of a military force around to let my neighbours know that I can fight them off if they come for me. Then I go after them in sneakier, more alternative ways.
Religious victory seems to be the most powerful, non-military victory condition this time around. You send off missionary units to spread the word of your religion, bringing new followers into the fold from every city in the world. Rather than taking their land, you take their people.
But this is the only victory condition where you can get away with minimal military work. To achieve a scientific victory and gain a technological edge on your enemies, you’ll need military superiority to keep them at bay because success makes them antsy. Borders must be kept secure because they’ll see what you have and they’ll want it bad. The same is true of cultural victories. Even with all your art and libraries, you’re still going to need to be able to put up a fight when Cleopatra decides she wants to take your shit.
If this all sounds quite complicated, its because it is. However, Civ 6 works hard to make it easier to keep track of everything that’s going on than ever before. Everything fits together more smoothly so you can jump from screen-to-screen and tree-to-tree without getting overwhelmed or failing to find the info you need.
One significant change from previous Civ‘s is that city hexes now work as possible placement spots for other buildings. These buildings can provide huge buffs to all of your income streams, monetary and otherwise. Previously, things like libraries, universities, barracks and markets were rolled into the main city. Now you have think critically about where you’re going to place these things to maximise their efficiency. Placing your university adjacent to a rainforest will net you big science benefits for instance.
You are only limited by your city’s size in terms of how many of these new districts you can put down. This change in design forces players to change up their builds and strategies in each game, keeping them from doing what they’ve always done and building cities the same way every single time. Certain cities may not be able to adequately house a commercial district for example. This affects my long term goals, and I will need to come up with a solution to that problem quickly.
By far my favourite update on previous games is the abolishing of the hated Happy index. Happy previously was a way to suppress population growth. This meant you had to build entertainment for your people or bring them fancy things to keep them happy and therefore willing to work. The gathering of these things to please your citizens would frequently piss off your neighbours and draw you into conflicts you couldn’t afford.
This has changed in Civ 6 and happiness is now measured city-by-city basis. Now, if I don’t collect the right buildings, my city won’t be as powerful as it could be but I don’t have to run around trying to buy nice wines and build entertainment complexes or enter into blatantly one-sided trade agreements with neighbouring civs to secure them.
Speaking of other civs, the computer AI has seen a number of significant improvements over that of Civ 5. They are smarter, more manipulative, more hawkish.
They are also still completely batshit insane.
Civ 6 has made the info screens on the enemy accessible at any time so you can now know for sure what will provoke or placate a given leader. Your French neighbour likes it when you let him build the best and most impressive wonders. The Scandinavians will stay friendly as long as they can see I like building ships as much as they do. That’s a big help for fine tuning your strategy and holding certain neighbours off for a while longer, but it also means sometimes you just can’t manage their aggression towards you. The Vikings might love it when I build a ship or two but what if I’m landlocked? I can’t do anything about it. On a long enough timeline they will come to find my lack of nautical enthusiasm offensive (despite there being no nearby ocean for me to build any boats in), fly into a rage and throw themselves at my shipless nation. On the list of things to go to war over, “You don’t seem to like boats as much as we do” is one of the weirder ones.
None of this will come as a surprise to Civilization veterans who are, after 25 years, well versed in the AI’s sudden and arbitrary betrayals. We all remember Warmonger Ghandi. The difference now is that we finally have an insight into why they suddenly fly off the handle.
Also altered is the game’s look and vibe. Previously grounded more in reality, the game now presents a slightly more cartoonish visual aesthetic. I’ve heard some decry this, feeling that the game should take itself a little more seriously, but I actually quite like it. It makes an incredibly dense game feel that little bit more accessible. Plus the leader animations during negotiations are so full of character! I can’t hate on it.
Civilization 6 is an important step forward for the series. It brings a greater sense of variety, a wiser use of in-game assets and a broader range of activities and experiments to try. Civ 6 is still the best game of this type: every game is different, every moment captures your attention. It doesn’t move far beyond what the original Civ was trying to do a quarter of a century ago, but it seems that it doesn’t have to. A must play.
Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great new visual style; changes to city building demand new strategies; greater clarity in menu screens
Lowlights: AI still crazy in the coconut; Has not changed a great deal from Civ 5
Developer: Firaxis Games
Release Date: Out now
Platform: Windows PC, Mac
Reviewed on Windows PC.