Civilization is one of the great constants of PC gaming. Just as at any given moment there’ll always be people modding the latest Elder Scrolls, flashbanging terrorists in Counter-Strike, and barking orders at the screen during Football Manager matches, so too will there be people clicking an entire populace from Stonehenge to space, helping shape an alternate world history in which the Aztecs are a nuclear power or where Big Ben stands next to the Pyramids in the Viking capital.
The release of a new Civ game is a monumental event in the PC gaming calendar (a hypothetical six-year calendar, that is), because there’s an inbuilt understanding among gamers that we’re in all probability going to be playing it for five to six years until the next entry. At the time of writing, Civilization V sits in fifth place of Steam’s current ‘most played’ list, dutifully keeping the seat warm for its successor.
The good news is, Civilization VI is a wonderful game that’ll keep us one-more-turning for as long as it damn well pleases.
Once again, the series has rejigged and reimagined longstanding traits we once assumed to be eternal, and it’s succeeded; Builders that expire after three turns? Cities spread across several tiles? Cartoonish visuals? It’s all here, and it all works. A few areas have been neglected, and we’ll probably need a couple of years, several balancing patches, and a couple of expansion packs before it unleashes its full potential. But that’s inevitable with a series that’s never been averse to radical changes while retaining the core appeal that’s kept it played perpetually since it first appeared 25 years ago.
So what’s this ‘Civ’ thing all about? You pick one of 21 famous leaders from the greatest nations in history and guide your civilization (yes, just like the title) from ancient to modern times, discovering technologies, inventing religions, declaring wars and building Wonders along the way. You can win by being the first nation to launch a spaceship to another planet, generating the most tourism worldwide, conquering the capital city of all your rivals, or by making your religion the most practised one in the world. There’s also a points victory if you have a turn limit and don’t achieve any of the aforementioned, but where’s the fun in that?
It’s fitting that on the 25th anniversary of the series, Civilization VI feels like a celebration – not only of humanity in all its triumphs and tragedies, but of the games themselves. Where Civ V felt a bit sterile with its classical music across all eras and somewhat stern colour palette, Civ VI grabs your attention from the off with powerful, uplifting menu music (by Christopher Tin, composer of Civ IV’s much-loved theme music) and holds onto it through a bold new visual direction.
The art style, which many including myself questioned in the build-up to launch, looks fantastic in motion. It particularly thrives most when you’re fully zoomed in on your cities, and can see the contiguous fields and meticulously placed districts surrounding them, as well as Wonders – which have been granted the ‘wow’ factor they deserve by taking up entire tiles, and having wonderful construction cut-scenes narrated by, errr, Sean Bean (who I still have reservations about as Civ’s omniscient voice of God).
The world is full of little visual flourishes; balloons come loose in funfairs and float off into the sky and fish glisten in the sun as they’re pulled from the sea in nets. One of the most striking details I noticed was when the rotating light from a lighthouse reflected off the Colossus I happened to build next to it, causing its bronze body to gleam gloriously whenever the light fell on it. The leaders are more animated and alive than ever, though perhaps a little inconsistent in their design; while the likes of Victoria and Philip look perfectly sensible, Trajan looks severely underfed while Qin Shi Huang looks like a particularly ornate Mr Potato Head. Nevertheless, the leaders are lovingly detailed and brimming with character.
My favourite touch is the scrawly cartographic map that’s replaced the generic fog of war. What starts off as depicting Kraken and compasses in lands you’re yet to explore eventually becomes a vague but beautiful window to the entire world, as you can see other cities, lands, and world Wonders in stunning sketched form. It sums up the game’s visual philosophy that it compels you to feast your eyes on every inch of it – even the fog of war. I’d regularly break away from my imperial duties to give myself quiet moments, turning off all the tactical icons on the map, zooming all the way in, then spending five minutes hovering slowly around the world, admiring the ethereal scrawlings of distant lands, before coming back to the vivid colours of my own.
Each nation has its own theme music that evolves alongside them through the ages – from mandolins and banjos in the early eras, onto orchestral scores in the Renaissance then more electronic, processed sounds in the modern era – all while retaining the same core melody. In another nice touch, other nations’ themes become part of your soundtrack when you meet them, expanding your playlist to keep things varied; just as well, because even a tune as quaint as the England theme, Scarborough Fair, can feel like a potato peeler on the psyche if that’s all you heard for the last 5000 years (or one hour, if you insist on using real-world time that I’ve neglected ever since the review code arrived in my inbox).
The first steps in Civ VI are the same as ever: you quickly turn your solitary settler into a city. But it’ll only be a couple of turns before you see that this is more than just a superficial makeover.
The most publicised change is that of the newly unstacked cities. This entails constructing districts in the tiles surrounding the city in order to accommodate certain buildings (so science buildings go in the Campus, culture buildings in the Theatre District, Wonders have their own tiles, and so on). This changes the dynamic of city-building drastically, and mostly for the better. City positioning is no longer just dependant on what strategic resources and luxuries are around, but whether there are mountains from which you get boosts to your Campus and Holy Site districts, or whether there’s an area of three, four tiles where you can place a series of farms to get boosts to your food output.
In the later game, when the new need for housing becomes a prominent issue, it’s often wise to replace farms with neighbourhoods, which feels like a nice way of integrating modernisation into the mechanics, as once-pastoral farms and hamlets become the suburbia of the modern city. This – and the fact that roads are now built by trade routes – means that the need for Builders (formerly known as Workers) is drastically reduced, but you won’t bemoan the fact that you can only use them three times, or that you don’t have ten of them auto-building around your cities for all eternity.
The unstacked cities make military conquests more interesting as you can target specific areas of a city you’re besieging, such as the farms to starve its population or industrial zone to ruin production. It also prevents single cities from becoming Wonder-hubs, forcing you to think more carefully about which Wonders you really want and finding alternative cities to build them in. One problem with unstacked cities is that they render cities built on small 2-4-tile islands kind of useless. Yes, you can build a Harbor which will bring in some production and trade benefits, but you can no longer improve the output of ordinary water tiles, which essentially makes them wasted tiles. The new city-building in Civ VI just isn’t cut out for maps with high sea levels and lots of smaller islands, so you can forget about building those magnificent island cities of Civs past.
Aside from the major additional consideration of city planning, the rhythm of the game is much as it was before, and the retention of tourism and religion – albeit tweaked – from Civ V prevents the pace from stagnating in the late game as it’s been known to in the past. Alongside your tech tree, where you use your science output to discover things ranging from stirrups to the atom bomb, there is now an all-new civics tree, which uses culture to unlock governments, polices, diplomatic options, and the occasional Wonder. It essentially opens up a whole new branch of knowledge that can be just as important as the things you learn through the tech tree, making Civ VI less of a science funnel than past outings.
Governments and policies are, for me, the most successful new features in Civ VI. Through civics, you unlock era-specific government types (monarchy in the medieval era, autocracy in the modern era etc.), each of which has a number of slots for military, economic and diplomatic policies that you swap in and out as and when you need to (at a small price). While there’ll be policies you’ll want stick with to match your long-term goals (such as boosts to your science, districts, tourism or shrines), you can always make drastic changes to fix an economy that’s suddenly lagging after a trading partner got invaded, for example. Or when the inevitable World War (hopefully) hits, and you have switch to an autocracy and give up your florid cultural boosts in favour of accelerated military production and stronger city defences.
It’s not all just short-term switch-ups either, as each government has legacy bonuses that increase the longer you stay with one government type, and are retained even when you change, creating a nice sense of your nation’s heritage continuing to influence it centuries on. My Rome, for example, may be a secular communist state now, but hundreds of years as a theocracy earlier in its history mean that it will always generate a decent amount of faith.
On which note, religion has gone from being a handy bonus in Civilization V to whole new way of waging war and means of victory here. If you want your religion to have any sway in the world, then you’ll find yourself fighting more battles between lightning-firing horseshoe-haired Apostles than actual soldiers. Playing as Trajan of Rome in my first game, I got drawn into a religious shadow war with Philip II of Spain. The sneaky bastard built a city on my land and began spreading the word about someone who died on a cross.
After swatting Philip’s Apostles away from my cities, I spread my religion to his city (on my damn land!), which inadvertently triggered a centuries long Apostle war that caused me to get a warmonger penalty among the rest of the world’s nations. It was intense, tactical stuff on my part, as I ferried my injured Apostles back to my shrines to heal them, and attached them to military units so they couldn’t be attacked. It did, however, expose ongoing AI shortcomings in Civ VI, as big Phil wasn’t nearly as strategic; despite his superior numbers, his Apostles never retreated to heal, nor were they ever escorted by military units, and he just threw them at me in numbers like some drunken Soviet general.
That AI cluelessness reared its face again during actual war too, in much the same manner as before. The biggest change is the option to semi-stack your armies, allowing a military unit to share a tile with a siege tower, or later in the game for three units of the same type to stand on the same tile. It makes combat a little cleaner and a little more tactical, as stacked units trade off attacking strength for defence. Again, however, the AI was incapable of using these to its advantage, foolishly trying to swarm me with disorderly numbers alone rather than using a clear military strategy (I should add that the highest difficulty I played on was King, though the difficulty scaling struck me as once again giving the AI accelerated production rather than improved intelligence).
It later turned out that the reason Philip got mad at me was because his main leader agenda is ‘Counter Reformer’, which means that he despises people spreading their faith into his empire (conversely, my personal agenda is ‘Stay the Hell off My Continent, and he didn’t respect that, so I make no apologies). The Agenda system infuses leaders with more personality, granting each one a visible agenda across games, as well as a hidden one that’s unique to that specific game. It’s a welcome addition, adding personality to the leaders through what are essentially neuroses blown up to a global scale.
Queen Victoria, for example, doesn’t like civilizations on other continents unless she has at least one city on that continent as well. A model imperialist, or a bit of a control freak? Either way, such quirks (as well as the hidden ones that you can uncover through good relations or espionage) make leaders far more interesting than just numbers dictating how aggressive, cultural or religious they are.
You can uncover a leader’s hidden agenda using the much-improved new espionage system, where you train actual Spy units who can snoop on other civs, setting up Listening Posts to find out their agendas and what Wonders they’re building, or do a good old-fashioned bit of sabotage in a rival civ’s districts. Catch a Spy in the act, and you can use them as a bargaining chip in trade deals. It all feels very surreptitious and ‘Le Carre’, though it’d be nice to see the Spy repertoire expanded in one of the expansions.
Is Civilization VI the perfect Civ experience? I’m sure it will be, though at this point it doesn’t quite match the raw density of content seen in the Civilization V Community Balance Patch (from which this game has in fact inherited several ideas). Civ VI has opened a new path forward for the series with some drastic new mechanics and laid solid foundations to be built on in the way of diplomacy, war, religion and espionage, but still struggles to adapt the AI to the intricacies of hex grid, particularly in combat.
But if someone asked you to capture the spirit of Civilization, then this is definitely it. More than any other Civ game, VI is a joy to be in – a beautifully presented new angle on the grandfather of 4X games with a celebratory atmosphere that keeps you as compelled as ever to click your way through human history over and over again.
The way the series has evolved reflects our own play cycles with Civ. Each entry is like starting a new game – carrying into it the expertise and heritage of past games but being unafraid to try a new strategy to achieve victory. These are just Civ VI’s first few turns on a journey that will go on for the next three years or so as the game evolves. It’s just the beginning of a new Civ chapter, and what a glorious, confident beginning it is.