As concepts go the idea of building a civilisation to stand the test of time, from one lonely settler who can barely light a fire to a workforce constructing wonders across a continent to a space-faring population of billions, must be one of the grandest. Although depicted as a handful of sprites taking turns to bump into each other, the original Civilization, released over two and a half decades ago, rightly became one of the most ambitious and impressive games ever made. Thinking back, it taught me more about history, geography and politics than more conventional educational methods. An iconic display of what the video game medium can achieve even in its relative infancy.
Fast forward all those years and we find ourselves at the dawn of a new entry to the series. It is impressive, given the industry's penchant for spewing out sequels, that it is only the sixth, although that is discounting the many add-ons, DLC and spin-offs that have been flung our way in that time. As such each core in this series release feels fresh, a chance to redefine and reinvigorate. Civilization VI (especially given the slightly lacklustre fifth entry), certainly does just this. A more than welcome return to form for the granddaddy of video game series, combining that incredible concept with some modernised mechanics that make each turn the player takes gripping and so incredibly hard to put down.
When Civilization V deconstructed the armies of the game, spreading each unit out across the tiles that make up the world, it initially felt like a frustrating change in dynamic. Large armies were difficult to manage and the logistics of trampling across enemy nations undermined the fun of the game. Yet after some time most players started to understand the need for such change, it added a layer of depth and strategy to war. Ranged units could be protected by stronger melee troops, while the cunning player could flank from behind with trampling hordes of cavalry. It moved the series away from monstrous stacks of units hidden underneath each other, impenetrable and with few tactics available other than to continually throw units at it like waves against a cliff until eventually that stack would tumble into the sea. For all its failings, Civilization V ultimately made war more intelligent..
Developers Firaxis (also responsible for the excellent revitalised XCOM series) with Civilization VI wisely maintained this tile based spread of units, but have added further intricate mechanics such as classes of melee troops which fare better against certain opponents and upgrade trees to further the strategic depth of battle. Yet the biggest changes in this release come with deconstructing the cities themselves. No longer are towns tiny plots that fill just a single tile, bulging at the edges with all the buildings that are constructed within. Now the player must place districts for each area of infrastructure, from commerce to entertainment, each of which spills out of the city’s tile onto nearby sections. Meanwhile each wonder must also fill a space, making urban planning with limited tiles a real challenge.
Not only does this brighten up the map, placing gorgeous models of wonders out into the open, but also adds many layers of tactical depth. Does the player choose to make a city industrious at the cost of scientific endeavour, or decide that a certain city should be the shining light of its Civilization with theatres and museums to keep the citizens entertained? Since each city can only have a limited amount of districts, due to space and population limitations, it makes each decision to construct an area much more permanent and demanding.
Of course many of these decisions will be based upon how the player intends their Civilization to develop across the world, and ultimately win the game. As in all Civilization games, it is not all about conquest, although that certainly plays a large part of it, there is the classic race to the stars: the first player to progress through the technology tree and launch a mission to Mars is proclaimed the winning Civilization. Culture victories are also possible, with players competing to have more tourists vacationing (obviously more of a late-era form of victory) within their lands than any other has domestic tourists. Finally and perhaps the most interesting is a religious win.
On release Civilization V lacked any real form of religious mechanisms, which is an odd choice given the huge effect belief has had on the world. It was not until the release of the excellent DLC Gods and Kings that this was rectified. With this sixth release we see a marginally improved mechanic with players founding religions early on, each having various benefits, and then attempting to convert their enemies’ population with missionaries. In a strange way this functions similarly to war, perhaps an interesting metaphor laid down by the developers. Units are sent towards cities with a mission to convert the population to their faith, while the defending player is unable to retaliate with traditional methods. Instead they must recruit their own apostles or inquisitors to engage in a bizarre form of verbal religious conflict (read: fight), until one falls and the winner can continue on their quest to convert all to their cause.
While a city changing faith is not game threatening and you do lose control of the population, the player does lose some benefits and will of course be frustrated in their own attempts to win with their own religion. This may cause such deep resentment that they may be forced to declare war on these disturbed heretics, turning the army on those puny missionaries. It may seem desperate and will certainly upset some citizens, perhaps enough to cause riots, but it could be the only way to ensure their religion does not fade into the history books.
And this is something I love about Civilization as a series. All these simple mechanics, cunningly wrapped around each other, create a surprisingly accurate reconstruction of why humanity formed the way it has done. You can see, on a very basic level, why the Romans with their terrifying military strength eventually fell through over expansion and corruption at its heart. Why the Crusades were so important to Western Europe. Why the conquistadors of the Spanish empire trampled all over technologically deficient tribes of South America. Each of these can and will happen in a single campaign in Civilization VI.
There is much to praise in the game’s production as well. When the fifth entry moved to a 3D engine it brought with it a number of demons. Even on high-end machines it stuttered, the masses of units displayed on the screen frozen in time. Each go it would take minutes of lost time to crawl through the computer controlled turns to return back to the player. Admittedly it was eventually patched and improved, but on this release Civilization VI feels like a much more complete game, refined and refreshed. Even a mid ranged laptop running off battery power holds a decent frame rate making it a perfect travelling companion, eating away those otherwise wasted hours. Meanwhile each turn, while not exactly swift, turns over at an acceptable rate, even in the end-game period when most Civilizations have dozens of units to manage.
But it is the audio composition that really impresses, making those many hours spent with the game that much more pleasurable. Christopher Tin returns, that man who won a Grammy for his exceptional piece Baba Yetu from Civilization IV, and has delivered a score that resonates throughout the eras. In the primitive years you may hear a flick of a string, or the beating drum, that will slowly evolve into a melody as the years fly by, a tune that then breaks out into baroque flair or a full string arrangement as your Civilization reaches the modern era. It’s a clever device that echoes the graphical changes on screen, giving the player a real sense of progression. Each Civilization seems to have their own dynamic theme as well, from the African rhythm of the Kongo to the more pompous Russian empire, all of which seem to converge in the later eras. One thing however: in those epic games that run up into dozens of hours these repetitive noises can become something of an annoyance and when it is all over you may never wish to hear that Scarborough Fair melody again. Similarly Sean Bean, who voices every single quote that is reeled off on each new discovery, gets rather grating after a few playthroughs. I miss Civ IV’s Leonard Nimoy. I guess there’s always the mute button.
But for all its successes the game does let itself down in a few too many ways. Firstly the finger is firmly pointed at those dumb computer opponents. Strangely when interviewed in the early nineties, creator Sid Meier said “If you've got a feature that makes the AI look stupid, take it out. It's more important not to have stupid AI than to have good AI”. If that was still the case they really should have stripped out a few more mechanics to help these idiots. Playing a single-player campaign can feel rather bewildering, particularly in the later eras. Often opponents will descend down on your borders with an impressive wealth of units and declare war a few moments later. However they rarely seem to take advantage of this surprise and will mill around a few turns before sending just a few units to be crushed against the walls of your city. It is as if they do not understand the game they are in, wishing a return to those stacks of doom mentioned earlier. They seldom use ranged units effectively, and never seem to take advantage of the array of support units, such as the horrendously overpowered siege tower, that can really change the tide of a battle. Ultimately with just a few units and some intelligent tactics it is possible to bring their armada to its knees. Sometimes it feels like cheating.
Their behaviour outside of battle is highly erratic too. Builders, who shape the land around cities to improve productivity, will often be seen running back and forth across their lands but seemingly not changing anything. Meanwhile at the negotiation table their conduct seems to be almost childlike. They will demand you give them luxury resources, but with a few clicks of a button that suggests alternative trades you might find yourself being offered vast sums of money for the same goods. Again, it feels a little like cheating. Then after declaring war on you for no obvious reason, and realising they are on the losing side a few turns later, they will offer you everything they have for peace. Then a few minutes later they will denounce you for being a warmonger, and cry about it for the next thousand years until you finally crush them under the treads of your tanks. Actually it’s quite satisfying to end their miserable reigns.
Some of that might seem a little unfair, as on the higher difficulty levels they certainly offer some competition, but it mainly feels like the stats have just been altered in their favour rather than an intelligence boost being given to their brain. Similarly the user interface needs some work. Playing on a big screen with a Steam controller, as many choose to do now, can be rather frustrating with many rather important buttons a little too small. Meanwhile so much of the statistics that game portrays are left unexplained, even by the tutorial or within the vast tome of the Civilopedia that mainly provides (admittedly quite interesting) historical context rather than any real useful game information. Amenities is one such example, a value that represents how happy each city is based on several factors, which is broken down into helpful categories such as luxuries and entertainment but then no justification for these scores are given. Why when a civilisation has tens of luxury resources does one city receive one point and others more? Searching online seems to be the only solution and even out there in the infinite knowledge they seem just as baffled. It is not intuitive to a veteran Civilization player, let alone someone new to the series.
Perhaps our biggest gripe is that the later eras still feel rather under-developed. A problem that has plagued the series for its lifespan. The future, as you develop space travel, feels rather out of line with what is happening to the actual world around us. Pollution (which did actually once feature in the earlier games) is not addressed here and neither is global warming or the loss of vital natural resources. It feels like these are all mechanics that could play into the endgame being far more relevant and enjoyable rather than the slight chore it can be. But perhaps these are things that may be developed with new content in the years to come.
Multiplayer has been a core part of the Civilization experience all the way back to 1995’s CivNet which was a reworking of the original’s code for internet play. Obviously Civilization VI is no exception with easy to set up games through Steam with both private and public lobbies as well as local network and (always the best form of gaming) hot-seat It’s a tricky proposition though, the issue being that the length of each game is usually too long for a single or even multiple sessions which means that too many lie unfinished, particularly if played with random players online. The game deals with this issue in various ways, from faster modes that speed up research and manufacturing times to much smaller and tighter maps that ensure everyone collides early on in human history. These modes can be fun, and it can feel brilliant to outwit real human opponents, or convince friends to declare war on each other, but there is still ultimately that downtime between turns. Often you can find your turns are over in seconds with no orders to deliver and then you’re stuck waiting again. Effectively it works well as a background activity, but one that certainly requires a huge amount of planning and thought when your turn arises. Down to its very mechanics it is unlikely that any Civilization game will ever be as exhilarating or as Call of Duty or as deeply strategic as Command and Conquer, but there are of course many out there that prefer this more laid-back approach.
Mods are another way that Civilization VI has tried to address its multiplayer issues. There are already many mods surfacing on the Steam workshop page and the game itself comes bundled with a few scenarios that change the overall dynamic of the game, perhaps starting in a later period with a few cities already developed or finished far earlier so that players must rush to defeat each other. The Ancient Rivals mod does just this with fifty turns before the game ends and the person who has explored the most, survived and built up an enviable culture wins. This can be just about rushed through in one evening with friends, and demonstrates arguably the best part of the game when you send your scouts out into the unknown, looking for that perfect site to found your Civilization.
Many of the issues we’ve had with Civilization VI could be called nitpicking. The AI is undeniably terrible but can still be a worthy opponent and the lack of explanations is frustrating, but hopefully most of these issues will be patched out eventually, developed with mods or inevitable DLC content. What we have here is certainly a more accomplished entry into the series than the previous, and arguably with the interesting changes in mechanics that bring on a more tactical depth it could be the best, though some old stalwarts will surely disagree. It is a beautifully produced package with lovely sound design and a very pretty world to stare at, particularly as your explorers peel away the fading paper edges that act as fog of war to reveal luscious lands underneath. Any fan of strategy or gaming in general, whether or not they’ve invested time in the series before, should aim to pick this up and be prepared to lose hours in its hypnotic just-one-more-turn gameplay.