After several years of ‘will they, won’t they?’ in 2019 Civilization V and Civilization VI finally switched places on Steam’s ‘most played games’ list. After an expected-yet-slightly underwhelming launch and a small controversy over the price of expansions, the latest release in Sid Meier’s 4X series has surpassed the previous entry by a decisive margin.
Newer games dethroning predecessors is in most cases inevitable, but in Civilization’s case the timeline took slightly longer than predicted. Even after the release of both major DLCs, the fifth Civilization game was still holding strong for two years into Civ VI’s life cycle. Even today it brings in an average of 18,000 players, peaking at 26,000.
You should read our original Civilization VI review, if you’re interested in what we thought at the time.
While Civ 6 is now comfortably beating Civ 5’s player numbers , that took a long while to achieve. So what gave Civilization V such long-lasting appeal in the first place?
Civilization Goes Mainstream
First, a little bit of history. Sid Meier’s Civilization V — the fifth entry in the legendary strategy series created by Sid Meier — came out in September 2010 to universal acclaim. Urban legend has it that Civ 5 had an unpopular reception, although major outlets actually gave it scores above 90%; essentially, because it was such a radical departure from Civ 4, it split the player base somewhat much like the split between Civ 5 & Civ 6, except everyone got over it much quicker.
Over the next couple of years, Firaxis unleashed two expansions for Civ 5 that expanded the scope; added proper diplomacy, religion, and culture to the game; and transformed it into a mile-wide, mile-deep 4X experience that catered to a large amount of playstyles. Fast-forward to October 2016, and Sid Meier’s Civilization VI launches to generally favorable reviews. A few points below the scale of the previous game, but still in the upper 80s and low 90s. The audience, however, is significantly less impressed.
The end result was a prettier game... but which still came up short of Civ 5 and its expansions.
Unlike Civilization V, which drastically changed the formula and map of the game world of its predecessors, Civilization VI was more of a tweak of the same formula. While the game itself was in a better state content-wise at launch than Civ 5 was, the game changed or removed many features — like the United Nations or proper trade systems — that were fully integrated into the previous game. The end result was a prettier game complete with a new district system and a fully baked-in religious system straight out of the box, but which still came up short of Civ 5 and its expansions.
The price was and still is the biggest obstacle to Civilization VI’s appeal. After the game launched and was found wanting, the world was faced with the option of getting the brand-new Civilization VI for £40, or the vast, excellent, and battle-tested Civilization V with all of its DLC and updates for £10. The idea of paying four times for something that was seen as a mild upgrade at best was daunting, and many veteran players who had already forked out a lot of cash on Civ 5 were reticent to spend money on what could be considered a downgrade.
Civilization 6 vs Civilization 5
Change itself was also the issue. Every new or revised mechanic is bound to stir up dissent, but some fundamental changes ended up being at odds with the how the series’ player base expected to play their game. The move to Housing and Amenities instead of Food to regulate growth effectively removed player’s abilities to shape their own civilisation, adding hard gates to progression in the form of districts and tile space that could only be unlocked with time instead of brute force via proper management.
The lack of meaningful penalties for more cities — a staple of Civ 5’s strategy — meant that every single culture was now able to expand unregulated from the first turn, which then transformed Civ from a mix of capital, main, and satellite cities into the endless micromanaging of dozens of small cities. In essence, one of the main issues of Civ 6 is that while it caters to more playstyles on paper, in practice it caters for less.
Civilization V’s mechanics and design philosophy offered deeper differences between empires, from the Egyptians flat 20% bonus to wonder constructions to the English’s +2 movement bonus on sea units. In Civ VI, the Egyptians get a slightly smaller 15% bonus to wonders that *only* applies on tiles near rivers — making them true to Ancient Egypt but ignoring 90% of the game map’s tiles — and the English get a rather boring boost to Archeological Districts that only really makes a difference late game (and even then, it’s marginal).
But neither of that even comes close to Venice — Civilization’s most unique civilization, and the stark difference between both games’ interpretations. In Civ V, the fan-favourite faction of Veneza represented by Doge Enrico Dandolo cannot found or annex cities — its expansion is restricted for most of the game, leaving players with a single city to weather any storm. To make up for it, trade route slots double in size, allowing Venice to stockpile money in fantastic amounts and eventually buy city-states with the use of the Merchant of Venice.
The necessity to build tall instead of wide presents an experience unlike any other in Civ V, and Venice can easily stand toe-to-toe and even steamroll other Civs when played properly thanks to its lack of expansion penalties, its super developed capital, and its overflowing gigantic coffers. Civ VI, on the other hand, has no culture that comes even close to that, and the game straight up punishes building tall over the overwhelming incentive it presents to go wide with expansion.
The general expectation was that Venice or factions like it would come to the game eventually, and once Civ VI went on sale and had a few proper DLC under its belt, it would be a real contender — but that never came to pass. When the first and second expansions finally arrived, they continued the launch trend of asking the price of a full game for what was essentially a modicum of content. Four years after launch, prospective Civ VI players are looking at +£100 if they’re not willing to wait for a sale.
King of the 4X
Over the last few years, Firaxis has discontinued support for Civ 5. Multiplayer games — the stability of which ranged from reliable to infuriating — have degraded further since Civ 6’s launch. It’s gotten to the point where many have begrudgingly decided to move to the newer game for a more stable environment for online play. It helps that since Gathering Storm was released in February 2019, Civ 6 has enjoyed plenty of sales. It was even running a 71% discount at one point and was recently offered for free via the Epic Games Store. All of which helped ease the transition.
Related: The best 4X games
Now, Civilization VI stands far above Civ V in Steam’s player count. It’s actually the 15th most played game on Steam currently for the past 48 hours, and the highest strategy game on that list. There were rumours of a third expansion, which is one more than Civ 5 would have gotten, but instead it seems Firaxis have opted for a ‘Season Pass’ model, where they will be rolling out a wave of smaller DLCs over a longer period. The New Frontier Pass will be adding new factions and new game modes, along with other smaller bits of content every two months.
One thing is for certain: while Civ 6 may have finally surpassed its predecessor in terms of player-base, it may take an inevitable Civilization 7 to finally unite the two warring sides of the Civilization community and finally surpass the legacy of Civilization V.